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What Is Socioemotional Selectivity Theory?

Daniel Liden
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Socioemotional selectivity theory is the theory that, as an individual ages, he becomes more selective about how he spends resources such as time and money. Instead of trying to broadly spend life in pursuit of varied experiences or simple pleasures, he uses his resources on activities and items that have more emotional importance. This theory is largely based on what motivates different individuals at different ages. Socioemotional selectivity theory makes substantial claims about changes in social life, spending habits, memory, and goals across different age groups. Another element of socioemotional selectivity is a bias toward the positive — individuals without a concept of possessing only a limited amount of remaining time are more likely to embrace negative experiences in exchange for possible future gains, for instance.

The degree of selectivity that individuals express tends to vary based on their perspectives regarding time. When one consciously or unconsciously perceives time as unlimited, as is common during youth, he is likely to be less selective with his time. An individual who sees time as very limited, on the other hand, will likely be much more selective with his time. In socioemotional selectivity theory, older individuals are likely to be more selective because, for them, there is a greater immediacy to the issue of mortality.

One of the major aspects of socioemotional selectivity theory is how individuals with different perspectives of time behave socially. People who perceive time as relatively unlimited are more likely to want to meet new people and to attempt to build new friendships and relationships in spite of the emotional risks. By meeting new people and working on weak relationships, one exposes one's self to the risk that the relationship will not be emotionally satisfying and may even be harmful. People who perceive time as limited, on the other hand, are more likely to spend their time focusing on relationships that they consistently find to be pleasant and emotionally fulfilling. This is representative of the theory's concept of a bias toward the positive.

Many different factors can influence one's perception of time. One of the biggest factors is age, as growing older lends an air of immediacy to the issue of mortality. Illnesses, particularly life threatening ones, can also cause one to become more selective about experiences, according to socioemotional selectivity theory. Emotionally tumultuous experiences, such as divorce or the death of a family member, can have a similar effect.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Daniel Liden
By Daniel Liden , Former Writer
Daniel Liden, a talented writer with a passion for cutting-edge topics and data analysis, brings a unique perspective to his work. With a diverse academic background, he crafts compelling content on complex subjects, showcasing his ability to effectively communicate intricate ideas. He is skilled at understanding and connecting with target audiences, making him a valuable contributor.

Discussion Comments

By lighth0se33 — On Feb 05, 2012

My mother is in need of friends, but since she is in her sixties, she doesn't feel like she can break her pattern of shyness and do something new. To her, emotional security and safety are super important, and trying to make new friends would threaten both of these.

Several of her friends that she has had for decades have passed away. I know that she doesn't want to go through that hurt again. I have suggested that she make a few younger friends so that she wouldn't have to worry about them dying off before she does, but she thinks she will have nothing in common with younger people.

I fully understand being set in your ways and having emotional boundaries. However, I think that she has a big hole in her life that needs to be filled by breaking these.

By seag47 — On Feb 04, 2012

@orangey03 – Age and how it relates to socioemotional selectivity can cause problems for couples with a big age difference. My dad married a much younger woman after my mom passed away, and they had vastly different ideas on how they should spend their money.

They weren't wealthy, but they weren't hurting for money, either. She had no problem spending lots of money on clothes and décor for the house, but he wanted to save up for retirement. Since she was nowhere near the age to start considering this, money was a constant issue for them.

Also, my frugal cousin married a younger man who wanted to spend money on fixing up old cars. She had her mind set on saving up to buy a house, but he was okay with paying rent for years. She viewed that as wasted money.

By orangey03 — On Feb 03, 2012

@wavy58 – I went through the same thing. Around this age, I also gave up on ever finding someone to marry. I spent all my time with friends who I was comfortable with, and I avoided putting any effort into finding new ones.

I was surprised when I met a man through my friend and hit it off with him. This didn't fit into my plan to stay comfortable at all.

We ended up getting married, but since he was seven years younger than me, we had issues. I'm sure this had to do with our socioemotional selectivity.

He could watch TV for hours on end without feeling the need to get up and do something important. He couldn't understand why I couldn't just sit down and enjoy watching television. I kept getting up to do laundry, dishes, and balance the checkbook, all things that he felt no pressure to help out with.

I constantly felt the pressure of time running out. Every day did not seem to hold enough hours for all that needed to be done, but he could not understand this.

By wavy58 — On Feb 03, 2012

I had noticed this phenomenon, but I didn't know there was an actual theory regarding it. In my twenties, I never felt rushed to confine my precious time to the most important things. I could spend hours on video games and not feel any pressure to do anything else.

After I turned thirty, I could no longer bring myself to waste time on games. Every minute became precious, and so did every bit of my money.

I really didn't know why this happened at thirty. I didn't feel that I was about to drop dead or anything, and it wasn't a conscious decision to start behaving this way. Did anyone else experience this shift in priorities around this age?

Daniel Liden

Daniel Liden

Former Writer

Daniel Liden, a talented writer with a passion for cutting-edge topics and data analysis, brings a unique perspective to...
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