Developmental Psychology Of Life Management Research Paper

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1. Brief Historical Perspective On The Concept Of Life Management

The term life management is not frequently used in the psychological literature. One of the reasons might be that the active role of the individual in managing his or her life has only entered psychological models after the ‘cognitive revolution.’ In the following section, a brief historical overview of the emergence of the concept of life management is given, concluding with a tentative definition of the term ‘life management.’

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1.1 Emergence Of The Recognition Of The Active Role Of The Individual In Shaping One’s Life

To introduce the notion of ‘life management’ into the description and explanation of human development implies the assumption that people actively contribute to their developmental pathways and are not entirely under the control of external stimuli or biological processes. Although hardly controversial nowadays, it took a revolution—the ‘cognitive revolution’—to introduce this notion into psychology in the 1960s that was dominated by behaviorism of the Watsonian or Skinnerian type. The importance of self-regulation for describing and predicting human behavior was stimulated by research by Mischel (1968) and Bandura (1969). Their research has convincingly shown that situational, external stimuli are but one factor influencing behavior and that, when attempting to understand human behavior, it is necessary to take sources of behavior regulation into account that lie within the individual (i.e., self-regulatory processes).

Developmental psychology has long been dominated by the view that development is best described either in terms of biologically determined maturation (i.e., unfolding of a biological program or blueprint) or as the result of a specific learning history in the sense of classic and operant conditioning. The latter view is exemplified in Watson’s famous statement that if one were to give him a dozen babies he could—by arranging the environmental conditions—produce whatever adults one would wish to see (Watson 1925). Watson also noted that he was overstating the role of the environment but he wanted to juxtapose the introspective approach to psychology focusing on inner states such as feelings and thinking with the behaviorist position. Although the interaction of biological and environmental factors for development has also been stressed early on, for instance by Piaget, the proactive role of the individual in creating his or her development has only been recognized fairly recently (Lerner and Busch-Rossnagel 1981). In this perspective, development is viewed as the co-constructive interplay of biology, culture society, and the individual (Baltes 1997). On the one hand, individuals proactively shape their environment and place themselves into certain contexts. On the other hand, individuals react to their environment by continuously adapting and reacting to their physical, cultural, and social environment.

One important way in which individuals play an active role in their development is by choosing, committing to, and pursuing a set of (life-)goals such as wanting to become a teacher or deciding to have a child. The kind of goals a person develops and commits to is, again, embedded in sociocultural, biological, and phylogenetic factors. The less behavior is under control of these factors, the more degrees of freedom a person has to choose what personal goals he or she wants to pursue and how. In other words, the less societal or biological influences structure and determine which, when, and how to pursue goals, the more influential are self-regulatory processes for life management.

1.2 An Attempt To Define ‘Life Management’

The term ‘life management’ is only rarely used in the psychological literature. When searching the currently most comprehensive database for publications in psychology (PsychInfo 11 2000) for ‘life management,’ only 72 publications are listed for the past century, mostly referring to coping with stress in various life-domains such as work, family, or health. In this context, ‘life management’ is mostly used more or less synonymously with ‘coping.’ Taking a developmental perspective, however, a focus on coping appears too narrow. I propose to use the term life management in a broader sense to refer to how people actively take part in and shape their developmental trajectories across the lifespan.

2. Central Approaches To Life Management In Developmental Psychology

Currently, there is no unified model of life management in psychology. Instead, there are a number of approaches to life management that can loosely be clustered into three groups: (a) self-regulation models, (b) models focusing on age-related expectations, and (c) models stressing the role of personal goals. Despite their differences, these approaches have in common that they stress motivational, goal-related processes as central processes of life management across the lifespan.

2.1 Self-Regulation Theories

In contrast to ‘life management,’ self-regulation is a popular concept with more than 1,300 entries listed for the past decade in the PsychInfo database (PsychInfo 11/2000). Mostly, self-regulation is used as an explanatory construct intervening between situational external factors and individual behavior. In these publications, the term self-regulation refers to a variety of different processes located within the individual regulating behavior, such as social comparison, perceived control, emotional control, delay of gratification, or self-efficacy. Despite the heterogeneity of processes that are subsumed under self-regulation, they have one function in common: they are all concerned with internal processes regulating thoughts, feelings, or actions. Very broadly, self-regulation can be defined as ‘the extent to which people influence, modify, or control their own behavior’ according to goals or standards (Baumeister and Heatherton 1996, p. 1).

What goals and standards do people adopt? How do people initiate, execute, and end goal-related actions? Feedback-loop models of self-regulation attempt to answer these questions by referring to cybernetic control processes. Carver and Scheier (e.g., 1998) applied cybernetic models to personal goals. Personal goals can be defined as states a person wishes to achieve, avoid, or maintain. In this context, self-regulation comprises the following three aspects. (a) Setting of goals and standards: the setting of goals and standards creates a negative discrepancy of the actual and the desired state that the organism tries to overcome by employing goal-relevant means. (b) Monitoring: the comparison of the actual and desired state indicates whether the right means are chosen for achieving one’s goals/standards or whether other means need to be employed. (c) Operation (goalpursuit): the initiation, maintenance, and ending of actions for attaining one’s goals/standards. There is a large empirical basis supporting the importance of each of these processes for describing goal-directed behavior (see Carver and Scheier 1998, for an overview). One of the features that make this model particularly attractive is that it elaborates general processes of self-regulation that are not content specific and that can be applied equally well to goals of varying levels of abstractness, including short-term goals (e.g., wanting to dine at a nice restaurant) and to long-term goals (e.g., wanting to become the owner of a nice restaurant). Taking a developmental approach to life management, however, this model has one severe limitation: it starts when goals or standards are already set, and does not explain the process of goalsetting itself. How do people develop and select the goals that direct their behavior? This issue is central for the concept of developmental tasks and age-related expectations that will be discussed in the following section.

2.2 Age-Related Expectations As Guidelines For Managing One’s Life Across The Lifespan

The question, what kinds of goals a person selects at a certain age, is tightly linked with theories about normative development. These theories suggest that individual development is embedded in an age-sequential order of developmental tasks. In contrast to the very general feedback-loop model of self-regulation, Erikson (1968) took a highly content-specific approach to life management. According to Erikson’s developmental model, there is a sequence of eight developmental stages covering the entire lifespan, each of which is characterized by a specific theme or, in Erikson’s terms a ‘psycho-social crisis.’ According toverikson, progression to a higher stage can only occur after having successfully solved the previous crises.

Examples for such crises are ‘identity vs. identity diffusion’ in adolescence and ‘generativity vs. stagnation’ in middle adulthood. In this framework, life management can be viewed as successfully coping with a sequence of salient themes in each life-phase.

Taking a similar approach to life management, Havighurst introduced the concept of ‘developmental tasks’ referring to ‘a task which arises at or about a certain period in the life of the individual, successful achievement of which leads to his happiness and to success with later tasks, while failure leads to unhappiness in the individual, disapproval by society, and difficulty with later tasks’ (Havighurst 1972, p. 2). Havighurst proposes a set of about eight developmental tasks for each of the six phases into which he divides the lifespan from ‘infancy’ to ‘later maturity.’ Examples of developmental tasks are ‘starting a family’ for young adulthood, and ‘adjustment to retirement’ for old age.

The notion of a universal and unidirectional hierarchy of psychosocial crises or developmental tasks has been criticized because it neglects variability between cultures, between individuals, and within individuals (i.e., there is no uniform development across domains of functioning). There is high agreement, however, that within most societies there exist age-related expectations that have evolved from and reflect biological, societal, and historical influences. Such age-related expectations provide information about a timetable of being ‘on-time’ or ‘off-time’ (Heckhausen 1999, Neugarten 1968), and a frame of reference regarding the kinds of goals that should be pursued at a given age.

Age-related expectations reflect in part age-graded social opportunity structures (i.e., the amount of resources, support, and reinforcement a society provides for pursuing certain goals for people of a specific age). Complementarily, certain goals are more difficult to strive for when deviating from age-related expectations because necessary resources and support might be less accessible or even negatively sanctioned. In other words, age-related expectations contain information about the likelihood of goal attainment for a given point in the lifespan. Motivational psychology has shown that the expectation to succeed is one of the key determinants for selecting a goal. In this sense, age-related expectations function as a guideline for adaptive goal selection because they indicate which goals should best be pursued at which point in the lifespan, and which goals should better be abandoned. Empirical evidence supports the notion that individuals select personal goals that are congruent with the age-related structure of the lifespan.

Taken together, age-related expectations provide a reference standard regarding the kinds of goals that should be pursued at a given point in the lifespan. Moreover, as they reflect age-related opportunity structures, age-related expectations help to guide an individual towards goals for which resources are available and that, therefore, have a higher likelihood of being achieved than ‘off time’ goals. In this sense, age-related expectations are important guidelines for life management across the lifespan.

3. Personal Goals As Building Blocks For Life Management Throughout The Lifespan And Into Old Age

Action-theoretical approaches view goals as central building blocks of life management because goals structure and direct attention, emotions, and behaviors into particular pathways (Emmons 1996). Recently, a number of models have stressed the importance of goal-related processes for developmental regulation and life management. In the author’s view, the currently most prominent models are the model of selection, optimization, and compensation (SOC-model), the model of optimization in primary and secondary control (OPS-model), and the model of assimilative and accommodative coping. In this section, how these complementary models—that all have received good empirical support—conceptualize life management is briefly presented.

The SOC-model (Baltes and Baltes 1990, Freund and Baltes 2000) posits that, throughout the lifespan, individuals continually seek to successfully manage their lives through the orchestration of three processes of developmental regulation: selection, optimization, and compensation.

The importance of selection of goals is based on the assumption that, throughout the lifespan, biological, social, and individual opportunities and constraints specify a range of alternative domains of functioning. The number of options, usually exceeding the amount of internal and external resources available to an individual, needs to be reduced by selecting a subset of these domains on which to focus one’s resources. Selection (i.e., developing, elaborating, committing to goals) gives direction to development by guiding and focusing resources on certain domains of functioning (specialization). Moreover, goals organize behavior into action sequences and reduce the complexity of a given situation as they guide attention and behavior. According to the SOC-model, by delineating the range of goals on which to focus one’s resources, selection is the first important step for successfully managing one’s life. To actually achieve higher levels of functioning in the selected domains (goals), however, optimization needs to take place. Optimization denotes the process of acquiring, refining, coordinating, and applying the means or resources that are necessary to reach the goals envisioned. The importance of optimization is illustrated in the research on expertise. This literature has demonstrated the central role of the deliberate practice of skills, en-compassing the acquisition of new skills, the refinement of existing skills, and the integration and automatization of skills for achieving peak-performance. The process of optimization addresses the growth-aspect of development.

The third component of the SOC-model is compensation (see also Dixon and Backman 1995). Compensation is aimed at counteracting losses in previously available goal-relevant means and involves substitution of lost means by activating unused means or by acquiring new means. The objective is to maintain functioning in the face of losses of means. A second form of managing losses is to restructure one’s goals by focusing resources on the most important goals, adapting goal standards, or substituting no longer achievable goals (loss-based selection). The SOC-model posits that loss-based selection is an important process of life management as it allows one to focus or redirect resources adaptively when other means for the maintenance of functioning substituting the loss (compensation) are not available or would be invested at the expense of more promising goals.

According to the SOC-model, although all of these processes have positive developmental functions, it is their orchestration that contributes mostly to adaptive life management in the face of changing developmental opportunities, demands, constraints, and personal needs.

Building on the SOC-model and focusing on control, Heckhausen and Schulz (see Heckhausen 1999) propose in their model of optimization in primary and secondary control (OPS-model) two modes of control jointly contributing to life management across the lifespan, primary and secondary control. According to the OPS-model, people have an innate need to control their world and try to maximize their control potential. Primary control encompasses instrumental efforts to modify the environment according to one’s goals. Secondary control is employed when primary control strategies directed at the external world are not available or fail. Secondary control focuses on internal aspects such as changing one’s goals, engaging in self-protective attributions, or social comparisons. Heckhausen and Schulz distinguish between selective and compensatory forms of primary and secondary control strategies. Selective primary control refers to the investment of means for goal achievement. Compensatory primary control denotes the employment of external resources (e.g., help of others) or the acquisition of alternative means when available internal resources are insufficient. Selective secondary control refers to enhanced selectivity of resource investment into existing goals. Compensatory secondary control denotes cognitive reframing of goals such as devaluation of unobtainable goals. According to the OPSmodel, life management is only optimized when the four types of control are orchestrated according to an individual’s developmental ecology.

A similar view was developed by Brandtstadter and his colleagues (e.g., Brandtstadter and Renner 1990) in their model of assimilation and accommodation. According to this model, people use two complementary forms of coping to achieve a match between the actual and the desired developmental state, assimilation, and accommodation. Assimilation denotes an actional mode of coping that is characterized by tenaciously pursuing one’s goals by modifying the environment according to personal goals. Accommodation refers to a nonintentional, unconscious mode of coping, namely flexible goal adjustment. Accommodation comprises changing, downgrading, or discarding personal goals or lowering one‘s level of aspirations to match the environment. Following Brandtstadter, people will first use assimilative strategies to close the mismatch between the actual state and personal goals. When assimilative attempts fail, a gradual shift to the accommodative mode occurs, first by investing additional goal-related activities, then by engaging external aids or support systems, and, finally, by adjusting standards or even disengaging from goals.

The three models reported above converge in the importance they place on goals and motivational processes as building blocks of life management. Moreover, these models suggest that key processes of life management across the lifespan lie in the adaptation to developmental ecologies by opportunityoriented selection, focused investment of resources, and compensation of losses. Age-related changes in the availability and efficiency of resources necessitate the flexible use of goal related strategies. Starting out to be highly positive in childhood through early adulthood, the ratio of gains to losses becomes less favorable with age. Thus, with increasing age, individuals need to allocate more resources into the maintenance of functioning and compensation of losses than into growth (Staudinger et al. 1995). Life management, following these models, encompasses optimizing developmental potential and simultaneously compensating for losses.

4. Outlook

Different lines of research inform us that one important way in which individuals manage their lives is by developing, committing to, and pursuing a set of (life-) goals. What goals a person selects and pursues is embedded in sociocultural, biological, and phylogenetic factors.

An interesting question awaiting empirical investigation is the relative importance of these factors across the lifespan. During childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, biological constraints and social expectations regarding the kinds of goals to be pursued are relatively strong. In late adulthood and old age, there are fewer normative age-related expectations. This relatively greater social freedom might strengthen the impact of personal goals for life management. At the same time, in old age resources needed for shaping one’s environment according to personal goals decline. Therefore, it seems particularly crucial to focus on goals that are both personally very important and for which resources are still available. Future investigations of the interaction of the various factors influencing the selection, pursuit, and maintenance of goals across the lifespan might increase our understanding of how people manage their lives.


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