Socioemotional Selectivity Theory: Definition & Examples

socioemotional selectivity theory, explained below

Socioemotional selectivity theory (SST) is a lifespan theory of motivation and ageing. The theory postulates that as people age, their priorities shift from long-term to short-term objectives that satisfy more immediate emotional needs.

Key Points in this Article:

  • Socioemotional selectivity theory (SST) examines motivation and aging.
  • As people age, goals shift towards immediate emotional satisfaction.
  • By contrast, young people focus on long-term, knowledge-related objectives.
  • Age isn’t the only factor that determines our shift to emotional satisfaction. Terminal illnesses can also induce priority shifts.
  • Previous aging studies overlooked the emotional benefits of growing older.
  • The theory explains why older adults show decreased negative affect and maintain positive affect.
  • SST suggests older adults may engage in risky behaviors for pleasure.
  • SST emphasizes the importance of current happiness over distant objectives.

Socioemotional Selectivity Theory Definition

Socioemotional selectivity theory was developed primarily by Dr. Laura Carstensen (Carstensen et al., 1999) at Stanford University.

As stated by Löckenhoff and Carstensen (2004):

“With increasing age, perceived limitations on time lead to reorganizations of goal hierarchies such that goals related to deriving emotional meaning from life are prioritized over goals that maximize long-term payoffs in a nebulous future” (p. 1396).

Older individuals develop this priority shift due to a perceived limited time horizon.

According to this theory, when people are younger, their future is wide-open, so they tend to focus on longer-term objectives such as future-oriented or knowledge-related objectives.

However, when individuals are older, they realize that the available time for enjoying life is running out. Therefore, their priorities shift towards the present and pleasure-oriented objectives that serve their emotional needs.

Although this shift is directly associated with age, chronological age is not the driving force. Younger individuals facing terminal illnesses also exhibit this shift in emotional priorities (Carstensen & Fredrickson, 1998).

Origins of the Theory

Carstensen and Charles (199) point out that for decades the focus of research on aging was on the physical and cognitive processing declines that occur.

However, as researchers began examining emotional dynamics of ageing, they began to see a different pattern of results. As Carstensen et al. (2003) declare:

“…the overall pattern of findings about emotional experience and regulation points to developmental gains well into the second half of life” (p. 104).

For instance, population studies found that older adults experienced lower rates of depression and anxiety than younger age groups (George et al.  1988; Weissman et al., 1988).

At the same time, longitudinal studies found that the frequency of negative affect decreased over time, while positive affect remained stable (Charles et al., 2001).

Older individuals also experience less anger (Schieman, 1999) and worry less about finances (Powers, et al. 1992).

These findings all provide evidence that previous conceptualizations of old age were not entirely correct and that a new theoretical framework was warranted. This is where SST gains its value. By shedding light on the positive aspects of growing older, our understanding of old age is more accurate and complete.

Socioemotional Selectivity Theory Examples

  • In Choosing Friends: According to SST, the older a person gets, the less likely they will be to tolerate people that rub them the wrong way. There is no reason to be friends with others that you simply don’t like.   
  • Recreational Activities: As people get older and realize they have less time left on Earth, they may choose to spend more time enjoying recreational activities. Life is short and when you are older it’s even shorter, so enjoy life now before it’s too late.
  • Ignoring Health Issues: SST suggest that one potential negative consequence of older adults changing their priorities is that they may ignore symptoms of ill health. Not feeling well might be a symptom of something more serious, so some older individuals may avoid taking action.   
  • In Risk-Taking: As the window of time to live decreases, people may be more likely to engage in risky behavior. This might include trying adventurous activities such as sky-diving or hang-gliding.
  • Not Saving Money: Although money is a necessity, SST suggests that older individuals may be less concerned with saving for the future because the future is approaching more rapidly than ever.  
  • Expressing Opinions: There is less reason to be concerned about the opinion of others and being cautious about offending the people around you as you get older. Since friendships are chosen more selectively as people age, they may be more likely to choose others with whom opinions they share rather than tolerating being around people that hold different values.
  • Trying New Hobbies: Older people may become more open-minded to try-out and explore new hobbies. These are endeavors they may have passed up on before because they were too busy or had other priorities.  
  • Traveling: When young and focused on one’s career, the idea of taking time off work seems counterproductive to achieving one’s long-term career objectives. However, SST suggests that older people are more concerned about being happy today than objectives that are in the distant future or may not exist at all any longer.  
  • Not Taking Medication: If a certain medication tends to make a person feel drowsy or slightly nauseous, then according to SST, older individuals may be inclined to not comply with their doctor’s advice if it makes them feel unpleasant.   
  • Moving to a Foreign Country: If financially feasible, older individuals may take the risk and move to a foreign country. That country may be more appealing due to a more relaxed pace of life or better weather and scenery. SST suggests that as people get older, these may become higher priorities than living in an environment that is stressful and rains a lot.
  • Not Going to the Doctor: In order to maintain a positive emotional state, older individuals may simply avoid making decisions that would be good for them. Because going to the doctor could lead to hearing bad news, older people may simply decide to avoid that possibility altogether.

Applications of Socioemotional Selectivity Theory

1. In Processing Information

Being oriented towards maintaining positive emotional states should influence how people interpret information and the kinds of information they commit to memory. 

Research has shown that older individuals are more likely to pay greater attention to and remember positive over negative information (Charles et al., 2003; Mather & Carstensen, 2003).

Unfortunately, when it comes to health-related issues this tendency may be problematic. For example, ignoring physical symptoms, not attending to negative health-related information, or making life choices that emphasize maintaining a positive emotional state may not be beneficial to longer term health (Löckenhoff & Carstensen, 2004).

2. In Online Social Networking

A great deal of research exists on how social support affects physical and emotional well-being (Lincoln, 2000; Uchino, 2006).

In fact, Uchino (2009) states that social support may be:

“…one of the most well-documented psychological factors influencing physical health outcomes” (p. 235).

Epidemiological studies have demonstrated clear links between levels of social support and mortality from cardiovascular disease (Berkman et al., 1992; Berkman & Glass, 2000).

Other research has demonstrated a possible link between lower social support and cancer (Hibbard & Pope, 1993; Nausheen et al., 2009).

Holt-Lunstad et al. (2010) conducted a meta-analysis of 148 studies involving over 300,000 individuals and found that those with strong social relationships were 50% more likely to survive than those with poor social relationships.

As the authors state, this effect is:

“…comparable with quitting smoking and it exceeds many well-known risk factors for mortality” (p. 14).

Given the findings cited above, it is important to understand how socioemotional selectivity may affect the selection of online social networks. Being oriented towards maintaining positive emotional states should influence how older individuals form their online social networks.

Chang et al. (2015) examined the size and composition of individuals 18 to 93 years old on Facebook. They found that compared to younger users, older individuals had smaller social networks, but that those networks tended to be comprised of actual friends.

The number of actual friends was also linked to lower levels of feeling socially isolated and lonely across the lifespan. The authors note that these findings are consistent with SST and identify an adaptive response used by older adults which is conducive to well-being.


Socioemotional selectivity theory is a theory about how people change over the lifespan to become more oriented towards maintaining a positive emotional state.

This is in part due to a realization that pursuing long-term goals when there is a limited amount of time left is meaningless.

This new perspective on life leads people to pursue relationships and activities that will help them enjoy life, today. Being concerned and preoccupied with things far off into the future simply doesn’t make much sense.

This can lead to adaptive behaviors that help improve one’s psychological and emotional well-being. However, it might also lead individuals to ignore health-related symptoms or avoid decisions that feel negative but would be beneficial otherwise.


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Berkman, L. F., & Glass, T. (2000). Social integration, social networks, social support, and health. In L. Berkman & I. Kawachi (Eds.) Social Epidemiology (pp. 137-173). New York: Oxford University Press.

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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