Socioemotional Selectivity Theory

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Alternate name(s)

Lifespan theory of motivation

Main dependent construct(s)/factor(s)

Emotional Regulation, Perception of time

Main independent construct(s)/factor(s)

Old Age

Concise description of theory

The socio-emotional selectivity theory refers to the change in the motivation of the person as a function of his or her lifespan. When we recognized that we don’t have all the time in the world we see our priorities most clearly. The theory was proposed by Laura L. Carstensen, the theory implies that as the person ages he/she become increasingly selective with regards to the investment of their time, effort and other resources such as change also bring about a shift in the motivation and cognitive processing of an individual. This theory was initially put forth as a means to explain the typical decrease in the amount of social interaction that is observed in the old age population prior to the introduction of this theory. There are two influential schools of thought existed each based on a unique theory the first theory was the activity theory posited by Havighurst and Albrecht in 1953, activity theory addresses the issue of how persons can best adjust to the changing circumstances of old age. The second theory was the disengagement theory put forth by coming in Henry in 1961 which stated that the idea of fast approaching and eventually imminent death caused the old individual to distance themselves from the rest of the society in order to prepare for their final farewell the socio-emotional selectivity theory differs from these theories on the basic facts that it claims the reduction of interaction to be a positive rather than a negative notion. It also considers the motivational and cognitive factors associated with the progression of age.

Socio-emotional selectivity theory is based on the premise that a person’s adaptation to the changing environment is and space bound. It occurs in the context of the different life stages during the course of an individual’s lifespan. It claims that the social goals dictate and motivate the social interaction in a person’s life these social goals are of two types knowledge seeking and emotional regulation, they change accordingly to the social, psychological and cognitive perception of time by the individual. Time is either perceived as being unlimited and limited in early infancy adolescence and early adulthood time is perceived to be an unlimited entity and this notion prompts the individual to possess the social goal of future-oriented knowledge acquisition.

Diagram/schematic of theory


Source: Taken from Carstensen, L.L. (1995). Evidence for a Life-Span Theory of Socioemotional Selectivity. The figure Idealized model of socioemotional selectivity theory's conception of the salience of three social motives across the life span.

Originating author(s)

Laura L. Carstensen

Seminal articles

Carstensen, L. L., Isaacowitz, D. M., & Charles, S. T. (1999). Taking time seriously: A theory of socioemotional selectivity. American psychologist, 54(3), 165.

Carstensen, L. L. (1993, January). Motivation for social contact across the life span: A theory of socioemotional selectivity. In Nebraska symposium on motivation (Vol. 40, pp. 209-254).

Carstensen, L. L. (1995). Evidence for a life-span theory of socioemotional selectivity. Current directions in Psychological science, 4(5), 151-156.

Carstensen, L. L. (1992). Social and emotional patterns in adulthood: support for socioemotional selectivity theory. Psychology and aging, 7(3), 331.

Carstensen, L. L., Fung, H. H., & Charles, S. T. (2003). Socioemotional selectivity theory and the regulation of emotion in the second half of life. Motivation and emotion, 27(2), 103-123.

Löckenhoff, C. E., & Carstensen, L. L. (2004). Socioemotional selectivity theory, aging, and health: The increasingly delicate balance between regulating emotions and making tough choices. Journal of personality, 72(6), 1395-1424.

Originating area


Level of analysis


Links to WWW sites describing theory Wikipedia Page

Links from this theory to other theories

Activity Theory, Disengagement Theory

IS articles that use the theory

Wright, K. B., Rains, S., & Banas, J. (2010). Weak-tie supports network preference and perceived life stress among participants in health-related, computer-mediated support groups. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 15(4), 606-624.

Chan, M. (2014). Multimodal connectedness and quality of life: Examining the influences of technology adoption and interpersonal communication on well-being across the life span. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 20(1), 3-18.

Leen, E. A., & Lang, F. R. (2013). The motivation of computer-based learning across adulthood. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 975-983.

Hallam, L., De Backer, C. J., & Walrave, M. (2019). Taking it to the next level: The negligible role of trust when online dating goes offline. Computers in Human Behavior, 90, 259-264.

Original Contributor(s)

Raunak Mishra - Doctoral Student at Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode (IIMK) - INDIA

Date last updated

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