Socioemotional selectivity theory (developed by Stanford psychologist, Laura L. Carstensen) is a life-span theory of motivation. The theory maintains that as time horizons shrink, as they typically do with age, people become increasingly selective, investing greater resources in emotionally meaningful goals and activities. According to the theory, motivational shifts also influence cognitive processing. Aging is associated with a relative preference for positive over negative information in attention and memory (called the “positivity effect“).
Because they place a high value on emotional satisfaction, older adults often spend more time with familiar individuals with whom they have had rewarding relationships. This selective narrowing of social interaction maximizes positive emotional experiences and minimizes emotional risks as individuals become older. According to this theory, older adults systematically hone their social networks so that available social partners satisfy their emotional needs.
The theory also focuses on the types of goals that individuals are motivated to achieve. Knowledge-related goals aim at knowledge acquisition, career planning, the development of new social relationships and other endeavors that will pay off in the future. Emotion-related goals are aimed at emotion regulation, the pursuit of emotionally gratifying interactions with social partners and other pursuits whose benefits can be realized in the present.
When people perceive their future as open ended, they tend to focus on future-oriented and development- or knowledge-related goals, but when they feel that time is running out and the opportunity to reap rewards from future-oriented goals’ realization is dwindling, their focus tends to shift towards present-oriented and emotion- or pleasure-related goals. Research on this theory often compares age groups (e.g., young adulthood vs. old adulthood), but the shift in goal priorities is a gradual process that begins in early adulthood. Importantly, the theory contends that the cause of these goal shifts is not age itself, i.e., not the passage of time itself, but rather an age-associated shift in time perspective.
This justified shift in perspective is the rational equivalent of the psychological perceptual disorder known as “foreshortened future,” in which an individual, usually a young and physically healthy individual, unreasonably believes (either consciously or unconsciously) that his/her time horizons are more limited than they actually are, with the effect that the individual undervalues long-term goals and long-run pleasure and instead disproportionately pursues short-term goals and pleasure, thereby diverting resources from investment for the future and often even actively reducing his/her long-term prospects.