Developmental regulation theories

Human development is characterized by a great diversity of developmental pathways. This variability in alternatives implies that individuals have to be selective and must compensate when they fail to reach their goals. Contemporary models of developmental regulation (e.g. the dual-process model, Brandtstädter, 2009; the model of selection, optimization, and compensation (SOC), Freund & Baltes, 2002; Freund, 2008; the motivational theory of lifespan development, Heckhausen et al., 2019) make assumptions about the structure of intentions and goals that are assumed to influence development together with emotions, valuations, or expectations. I briefly introduce the three models. Although they share basic assumptions, they use different lenses and language to illustrate developmental regulation across adulthood. What do they tell us about how development works?

The SOC model

The SOC model (Baltes & Baltes, 1990; Freund & Baltes, 2002) provides a general theory for conceptualizing processes of successful development, generally, and ageing, in particular. The model distinguishes among three strategies (selection, optimization, and compensation) that enable individuals to manage their lives successfully. Selection of personal goals and life projects gives direction to development; the primary focus is on setting goals. From a large number of options, individuals select a subset on which to focus their resources. Freund and Baltes (2002) distinguished between two kinds of selection: Elective selection is primarily the result of motivation-driven selection from a number of possible pathways. Loss-based selection entails reconstructing one’s goal system and is a consequence of experiencing a loss of goal-relevant resources that threatens the maintenance of a specific level of functioning. Optimization involves goal-directed actions, for instance, the acquisition of goal-relevant means to achieve higher levels of functioning (studying harder to improve one’s ability or knowledge). The focus is on refinement and maintenance of resources that are effective in achieving desirable outcomes and avoiding undesirable outcomes. Such efforts (e.g. choosing the most appropriate strategy) require the coordination of physical, mental, and social resources to be effective. Compensation is related to the anticipated loss of goal-relevant means and denotes the use of alternative means to maintain a given level of functioning. Compensatory strategies have received particular attention in research on ageing and focus on times when specific goal-relevant means are no longer available. Substitution for loss refers to the acquisition of new internal or external means; hearing aids and glasses or activating the help of others are typical examples of compensation.

The SOC model was introduced as a metatheory. The adaptive processes need to be embedded in a specific theoretical framework that can be applied to various domains of functioning (e.g. social relations, academic achievement, athletic performance) and to different levels of analysis (e.g. individual level, group, society). The SOC model was developed to illustrate the mechanisms underlying positive ageing, that is, how efficacious functioning and successful mastery of developmental tasks can be achieved. Similar to the motivational theory of lifespan development, adaptive processes are discussed as strategies or competencies.

The motivational theory of lifespan development

The motivational theory of lifespan development (Heckhausen et al., 2010) distinguishes between the processes of primary and secondary control. Primary control denotes the attempt to gain control by bringing circumstances into line with one’s wishes. The motivational theory of lifespan development proposes that successful ageing is based on maximizing the extent to which people have influence, for instance, through selective primary control (e.g. the selective investment of resources into the attainment of a specific goal). Compensatory primary control involves compensatory means (e.g. technical aids, social support) that gain importance when goal pursuit becomes more difficult. Secondary control is defined as attempts to gain control by bringing the self into line with external constraints. When efforts cannot successfully align the environment with personal wishes, individuals can use selective secondary control (e.g. internal strategies for re-energizing their efforts to pursue the blocked goal) or compensatory secondary control (disengagement from further pursuit of a now obsolete goal). Both strategies are adaptive insofar as they optimize the individual’s long-term potential for primary control.

Heckhausen and colleagues (2019) referred to the interplay between age-related constraints and individuals’ control efforts (goal setting and control striving) from the perspective of transitions (e.g. school transitions, retirement). With regard to health problems, research has found differential effectiveness of self-regulating strategies (goal engagement and disengagement) among older individuals dealing with serious health problems (Hall et al., 2010). Moreover, goal engagement predicted better benefits for older adults suffering from acute, temporary, and reversible health problems, while goal disengagement predicted better health for individuals with irreversible chronic diseases.

It is obvious that Heckhausen and colleagues use concepts and terms that are similar to those used in the SOC model. However, these authors relied more heavily on control theory to establish the processes of selection, optimization, and compensation (Rothbaum et al., 1982; Rotter, 1966). One tenet of motivational theory is ‘that individuals, throughout their lives, strive to maximize primary control of their environment and developmental outcomes’ (Heckhausen et al., 2019, p. 193). Optimizing refers to exercising control.

The dual-process model of assimilation and accommodation

According to the dual-process model (Brandtstadter, 2009; Brandtstadter & Rothermund, 2002), two basic modes of goal regulation are assumed to reduce is-ought discrepancies (e.g. between desired and factual situations or developmental outcomes). Assimilative processes reflect intentional, persistent efforts to actively modify the actual situation in accordance with personal goals and preferences. This tenacious means of goal pursuit can include activities such as using optimizing strategies or compensatory means as elaborated in the SOC model and the motivational theory of developmental regulation. Assimilation partly converges with the concept of current concern, the ‘state of an individual between the time point of becoming committed to pursuing a particular goal and the time point of attaining the goal or giving up the pursuit’ (Klinger & Cox, 2004, p. 9). The accommodative mode consists of mechanisms of flexible goal adjustment. Processes of re-evaluation and disengagement (e.g. downward comparison, positive reinterpretation, acceptance) protect one’s self against depression and help one retain a sense of self-esteem and control. According to developmental regulation models, accommodation or secondary control is increasingly used in middle adulthood and old age. As they grow older, individuals face many age-related losses (e.g. declines in physical health, the loss of social roles, widowhood) that can threaten their goals and render those goals unattainable. The age-related increase and protective role of many accommodative processes has been demonstrated in experiments, including cross-sectional and longitudinal studies (Greve et al., 2005; Greve, Leipold, & Kappes, 2018; Heckhausen et al., 2019). The dual-process model places particular emphasis on the role that the flexible adjustment of goals plays in maintaining a positive view of the self: although letting go of valued goals that are no longer tenable may be associated with negative emotions, focusing on new goals can increase positive affect and help to motivate goal pursuit (see also Wrosch et al., 2003).

The developmental regulation models share basic assumptions, and some of the proposed concepts seem to capture similar processes but use different labels. These similarities and differences were elaborated by Boerner and Jopp (2007). I now highlight a point that is gaining importance with regard to the ISD perspective and that questions the extent to which these processes can be applied or trained.

Limits of intentional control

Brandtstadter and Rothermund drew attention to a difference between assimilative and accommodative processes that is not elaborated in detail in the SOC model or the motivational theory ofdevelopmental regulation. ‘Assimilative activities involve intentional agency and are integral to the lifelong process of intentional self-development; all goal-directed activity involves a tendency to assimilate actual life circumstances to normative self-representations and projections ofa desired life course. Accommodative processes, in contrast, cannot be originated intentionally, but shape the selection of goals and thus are basic to the regulation of action as well as to the allocation of assimilative efforts’ (Brandtstadter & Rothermund, 2002, p. 121).

Brandtstadter (2000) demonstrated the subpersonal or unintentional processes of accommodation and distinguished them with great precision from intentional efforts. ‘Accommodation of goals and preferences is... supported by the increased accessibility of cognitive contents that reduce the attractiveness of the blocked goal states or the aversive valence of the actual situation; the tendency to generate such palliative cognitions may be enhanced precisely by their potential to provide comfort and relief’ (Brandtstadter, 2000, p. 11). The SOC model and the motivational theory of developmental regulation place the successful development or efficacious functioning of the individual more strongly in the arena of strategic will (i.e. the control-optimizing function ofdevelopmental regulation processes), but they pay less attention to the differentiation between intentional efforts and non-intentional changes. Why is this issue important? With regard to the extent to which individuals can intentionally plan and shape their development, one interesting question (among others) is, do individuals use accommodative coping more as a reaction to something that happens or more as a strategy? In many situations, we wish to improve strategic skills, but we know too little about the probability with which certain events will occur. Box 2.3 provides additional detail on these considerations.

Several studies have investigated accommodation as a function of reduced goal attainability due to physical limits. For instance, research on patient populations with incurable diseases (e.g. multiple sclerosis, Neter, Litvak, & Miller, 2009) or depressive inpatients working on more or less solvable tasks (Koppe & Rothermund, 2017) has provided evidence regarding the protective function of goal detachment (e.g. through abandoning personal goals and re-orientation).

BOX 2.3 INTENTIONAL SELF REGULATION AND DEALING WITH UNCERTAINTIES

In some situations (e.g. career planning, social conflicts of interest, or other long-term goals), we do not know whether it is worth pursuing our original plans despite obvious setbacks or whether it is better to let those plans go. Gains or losses are often not clear but have room for interpretation. We can accept a failure for strategic reasons, but we do not know enough about the consequences (for example, the 'side effects' of a treatment). Even in the case of irreversible losses when it would be reasonable to make accommodations, this is sometimes difficult. We can try to distract ourselves, but whether accommodation is successful (that it works, that I experience relief) is not certain but depends on our preferences and values, which we do not develop by conscious decision.

In the contexts of psychological interventions or practical situations, it may be useful to distinguish between intentionally controlled actions and contextually mediated effects. We can acquire some degree of technical control over mental states, but the point at issue (Brandtstadter, 2000) is the extent to which the mental states themselves can be explained by intentional effort. Brandtstadter argued that the aspect of control separates actions from mental states or physiological events that occur without intentional involvement. Many mental processes (e.g. classical conditioning, changes in cognitive set) cannot be intentionally controlled but rather mediated by the purposeful arrangement of specific stimulus conditions. When circumstances are unfavourable for goal-directed behaviour, the response remains purely mental (e.g. mind-wandering or dreaming; Klinger, 2013).

In sum, goals may be any desired endpoint of a behaviour sequence, and it seems to be valuable to understand the underlying processes of goal selection, pursuit, and detachment. From a developmental point of view, to reach a goal successfully does not mean that we are also successful in other life domains: it is part of life that resources become scarce or threatened, and this requires flexibility. Development means that we (always) strive for new goals. A common assumption of developmental regulation theories is that goals are part of the factors that can influence development. On the one hand, goals provide an important basis for organizing one’s thoughts: the state of having a goal gives processing priority in the individual’s cognitive systems to cues associated with that goal (Klinger, 2013). On the other hand, goals are assumed to be preceded by emotional arousal. They are associated with many processes that can rarely be intentionally controlled.

Summary

The present chapter focused on the action-regulating prerequisites of intentional development: age-related biological changes (e.g. physical diseases, organfunctioning) and social factors (e.g. mediated through age norms, social expectation, and social support). Both factors are involved when people act, modify their life plans, and turn to new goals. From the perspective of ISD, biological and social factors have at least three functions. First, they can serve as a coping resource: we can use physical and social resources to reach a specific goal. Second, they can be the object of compensatory efforts (if there is a need to cope with health-related losses or social conflicts). Third, they can be the object of goal adjustments (in the case of personal standards, for instance, previous health status can no longer be maintained). Based on developmental regulation models, I examined which strategies adults use when coping with changes and age-related losses. The dual-process model (Brandtstadter & Rothermund, 2002) suggests two general approaches: (a) improve one’s coping strategies or enhance one’s abilities and efforts to control the situation (assimilation) and (b) flexibly adjust one’s goal hierarchy and preferences (accommodation through processes such as positive reinterpretation, acceptance, and downward comparisons). From an intentional point of view, the question arises regarding the extent to which mental processes can be trained or induced by intention. To better understand this problem, in the following chapter, I concentrate on the mental processes that are involved when people pursue goals.

 
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