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Developmental Perspectives On Motivation

For developmental psychologists the central question is why people pursue particular goals and how goal-pursuit might be related to age or life stage. Most studies, however, have been limited to childhood or early adolescence. Some suggest the relative stability of certain motives, such as the achievement motive, from that time on (McClelland, 1985). Others claim that there is a systematic reorganization of motives across adulthood, with goals related to self-verification and self-worth becoming increasingly salient (Carstensen, 1998). Beyond the question of which needs and goals instigate action at various ages, one can also distinguish various types of motivation to allow for further developmental differentiation. These motivating factors can be broken down into two general areas: (1) goal pursuit being controlled by internal vs. external forces, and (2) the temporal orientation of goals.

Control-related issues. A distinction can be made as to whether goal-directed activity emanates from the self or is brought about by (or perceived to be brought about by) forces external to the self. People of all ages have a strong desire for autonomy and feelings of control, yet the transition into old age is accompanied by increased constraints on control. In particular, rather than supporting autonomy, the social world of elderly people contributes remarkably to decrements in control. Following a "dependency-support script" (Baltes and Wahl, 1992), others—in particular those who take care of the elderly—tend to reward dependency and ignore autonomy, thereby stifling the efforts of elderly persons to control their lives themselves and undermining self-determination. Since, however, goal pursuits controlled by internal reasons have been shown to be predictive of almost all indicators of positive well-being, attempts to prevent loss of control have a long history in the psychology of aging. Only recently has it become acknowledged that elderly people, rather than adhering to illusions of control and engaging in fruitless efforts at control, exhibit a shift in regulatory strategies from primary control (directed at the external world) to secondary control (directed at the inner world of the individual). This shift may account for the so-called picture of contentment and well-being amidst threat and loss often ascribed to old age.

Time-related issues. The second way of distinguishing action goals is by their temporal orientation; that is, whether they are related to preparedness for the future or to satisfaction in the present. From this perspective, the notion of perceived time left in life deserves special attention, for the subjective assessment of time is considered to play a critical role in the ranking and execution of all goal-directed processes. Evidence has shown that elderly persons, more than other age groups, seem to focus on the here and now. Additionally, anticipated endings and limited resources have been shown to make elderly people much more selective with regard to where and when to invest their energies, and to make them much more reflexive concerning the optimization of means of attaining goals (as outlined in the model of Selective Optimization with Compensation; SOC-model).

The temporal ordering of action goals may also be examined using developmental tasks as a key concept. Developmental tasks are seen to be jointly produced by the process of biological aging; the demands, constraints, and opportunities provided by the external world; and the desires and strivings that characterize each individual's motivational system. These tasks provide individuals with a mental image of the normative course of development, thereby serving as sources for goal setting and as organizers of self-regulation. In addition, normative life transitions bring about relevant experiences, which might force psychological reorganization and induce changes in the motivational system, although little is known about these processes.

Arousal-related issues. Arousal theory makes plain the relevance of biological functioning to many motivational and emotional phenomena. In more general terms, one might refer again to the developmental-interactionist theory proposed by Buck (1999), which underscores the biological basis of higher level (e.g., social or moral) affects and elaborates how these became interrelated over the course of individual development. One of the most robust findings concerns the general slowing of the aging organism, together with a decline in sensory functioning. Thus, by emphasizing the older adults' lowered levels of vigilance, alertness, and speed of information-processing, it is expected that an individual will have less interaction with his or her environment. This is reflected in decreased emotional intensity (although decline does not occur when low arousal feelings like contentment are studied), among other things. More important, however, is that these biological changes might also have implications for the allocation of energy to goal-directed activities. For example, a decline in energy might foster in elderly people diminished feelings of control and a self-ascribed inability to attain goals. From this point of view, affective and cognitive processes again seem to interact in producing particular motivational states in old age.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 3Motivation - Approaches To The Study Of Motivation, Developmental Perspectives On Motivation, Social Motivation And Self-esteem In Old Age