Evaluation criteria for development: Equilibrium and structural characteristics

The study of development from a lifespan perspective has been linked with the assumption that development comprises gains and losses at any time during the life course. Similar to the problem of effective coping or problem solving, I will consider the question of what it means to speak about growth in the context of positive development. Before I come to the criteria of positive development, we first must address the difficult problem of briefly describing the components that characterize processes of human development. I can only focus on a few of these components. Several theories of psychological development refer to concepts such as discrepancy or balance (Brandtstadter, 2006; Labouvie-Vief, Griihn, & Studer, 2010; Piaget, 1977; Sternberg, 1998), gains and losses, or growth and decline (Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 2006; Staudinger et al., 1995). I refer to these concepts because they characterize how development functions across the lifespan. They can also be applied as a possible basis for evaluating how healthy individuals are developed at any given time.

Equilibrium and disequilibrium

Based on Piaget’s (1977) developmental theory, Labouvie-Vief et al. (2010) used the term equilibrium zone to describe the range of the system under which an organism is able to function with sufficient efficacy and integrity. Increasing discrepancies from the ideal lead to increasing degradation of functioning. To illustrate the dynamic laws of equilibrium and homeostasis, the authors used the example of body temperature, with a normal degree as a reference point: dangerous high or low temperature levels (i.e. strong disequilibrium) threaten the capacity for integrated or well-structured functioning of an organism.

Regarding the scope of Labouvie-Vief’s model (i.e. the development of cognitive-emotional processing across the lifespan), deviation and tension (e.g. through changes in the complexity of one’s demands or novelty) can change some of the parameters of the equilibrium system. The cognitive-emotional system may show growth (in the sense that the ageing individual develops adaptive or mature coping strategies or wisdom; Labouvie-Vief & Diehl, 1999; Loevinger, 1976). How it develops and integrates several demands and tensions across the lifespan is a key aspect of the considerations of the theory. The ideal end state serves as a reference point. The current state of a system being regulated depends on the degree of deviation from the ideal end state. The functioning of an organism is optimal at close to its end state but decreases as the discrepancy deviates in either direction.

According to Labouvie-Vief (2015), human development can be regarded as an equilibrium pathway (see also Piaget, 1977). The idealized form of developmental equilibrium describes the possible state from which an individual deviates more or less. The concrete life of individuals becomes the realized content of developmental states. In phases of (not too high) tension, simple structures are reorganized into complex representations. Integration at higher levels of complexity implies changes in the organization and hierarchical embedding of the components and processes elaborated at an earlier time of development. Such internal adjustments are elaborated through processes of differentiating existing knowledge through selective facilitation and inhibition. States of development are characterized by a (particular) balance of reactivity and proactivity. Reactivity means that ‘the individual acquires the structure of the environment without him- or herself actively changing its structure. In this process of primary reactive formation, many dimensions of the environment are adopted automatically and form a secure base of reality from which further secondary and proactive processes of differentiation start. Proactivity increases to the degree that the individual acquires preformed structure, differentiates the self from those preformed structures, and eventually transcends them in a further step of free autonomous and self-constructive integration’ (Labouvie-Vief, 1984, p. 179). The assumed high level of automatization implies that the threshold of comfortable complexity has been raised and that new cycles of differentiation, disequilibration, and reintegration can commence at yet higher levels. Such cognitive reorganizations can result in complex representations of emotions in the self and others, as well as moral understanding.

Despite the realm of cognitive-emotional integration, the terms equilibrium and complexity can be applied to other domains. Csikszentmihalyi, for instance, described the state of flow in which people are optimally engaged with what they are doing (Moneta & Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Flow states require a delicate balance between the challenges of a task and the person’s skill at meeting these challenges. Similar to the assumptions of Labouvie-Vief’s theory, an activity should not be too easy or too difficult. The degree of challenge should be slightly above the person’s current skills. Flow states involve higher levels of engagement than nonflow states but are not always accompanied by higher levels of positive feelings.

Equilibrium and structural features of the self

Structural features of the self (e.g. self-complexity, Linville, 1987; goal-structure features, Austin & Vancouver, 1996) concern the dimensions, properties (e.g. importance, difficulty level), and organization (e.g. connectedness, complexity) of goals. With regard to the intentional character of goals and given that individuals can strive towards multiple goals, it is of interest how a rather static snapshot of the self-concept or goal system (as structural self-concept features are) is related to the dynamics of the system. A flexible goal structure of medium complexity (e.g. not too few or too many goals; pursuing goals of medium difficulty level, that is, goals that the individual has a realistic chance of achieving) and the ability to adjust priorities, for instance, can be regarded as an equilibrating state between the extreme poles of general loss of interest and overzealousness. Concepts of goal setting, reorganization, reorientation, and palliative reinterpretation have been used to describe the regulation of intentions and goals (Wrosch, Scheier, & Miller, 2013). They can contribute to the success of adaptation, but they can lead to disappointment, too (i.e. sometimes we valuate: ‘the tasks were too simple or too complex’ or ‘what I have achieved is not important’).

Having multiple interests and goals that do not completely exceed one’s competences can be experienced as variety and satisfaction, especially if we suspect that some of our chosen life tasks have been solved through intentional effort. There is empirical evidence regarding the structural features of the self and the criteria for positive adaptations, but the results of many studies do not show simple main effects; instead, they show a moderated or indirect relationship between challenges and the criteria for positive adaptation. Because goals are interconnected to a certain degree and differ in several qualifying aspects (e.g. importance and valence, concreteness, difficulty, time perspective), it is not easy to measure their complexity. Indeed, differences in complexity can be expected between individuals. Some people acknowledge that they do not want too much. Taking this into consideration, it is not astonishing that complexity measures do not, or only weakly, correlate with indicators of subjective well-being.

If one demands too much from life, these high standards can lead to the feeling of being torn between alternatives, whereas demanding too little might induce sadness (‘what shall I do?’). The ability to recognize the beauty as well as the load of life and the willingness to relate one’s goals to both poles (the beauty and the load of life) can be achieved at different levels of complexity. From an equilibrium perspective, such integrations resolve existing tensions through more complex representations. From the perspective of intentional selfdevelopment (ISD), a lasting challenge of each individual is to find a balance between adjusting one’s goals flexibly and pursuing them tenaciously (see Brandtstiidter, 2006). A complex thinking style (and insight into problem-solving strategies) can be useful to avoid some mistakes but does not prevent choosing too-difficult tasks. Feelings of contentment seem to presuppose that one does not get stuck on unreachable life projects. Intentional efforts (e.g. to create the surroundings one wishes to have), however, presuppose mental strength to some degree. Thus, finding the medium level of complexity through which one can improve one’s action resources (despite physical and cognitive limits or declines) by pursuing and letting go - how can we act efficiently and how can we accept our limits - remains a lasting challenge across the lifespan.

Stability, growth, and decline

Lifespan psychology has emphasized the multidimensionality of developmental facets as well as their different age-related trajectories (Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 2006). As can be noticed in everyday life, development across the lifespan does not necessarily result in age-related growth. In several domains of life function, studies have found substantial age-related declines (e.g. the reserve capacity of the inner organs, speed-based cognition). In contrast, in domains of personality development (e.g. conscientiousness, neuroticism) or subjective wellbeing, rather weak or nonsignificant age-related differences or changes were observed. Given the age-related declines in many physical and cognitive domains, Staudinger et al. (1995) proposed drawing more specific attention to the phenomenon of stability. From a traditional, growth-oriented perspective of (child) development, stable characteristics might be regarded as uninteresting indicators showing, at best, that development or change is absent. With increasing age, however, stability can be important in several domains. For instance, when age-related losses can be expected and remarkable growth effects are unlikely, the stabilizing effects of cognitive training or interventions can be valuable because they illustrate that cognitive decline can be attenuated - at least for a limited time.

Apart from these rather neutral (descriptive) concepts of stability, growth, and decline, which can be used as the standard in basic research, applied developmental research sometimes regards the lifespan from a desirable perspective: How can we avoid negative outcomes and support quality? Lifespan psychology also emphasizes that lifelong development comprises gains and losses at any time during the life course (Baltes et al., 2006; Staudinger & Kunzmann, 2005). Several empirical studies have provided evidence of how different age groups evaluate stages in the life cycle. Some of the evaluations and gain-loss attributions are significantly associated with age. Ebner, Riediger, and Lindenberger (2009) investigated schemas (schematic knowledge) regarding goal orientations in early and late adulthood. They found that growth-related developmental goals (general expectations) are associated with young adults and that loss-prevention goals are associated with older adults. In a classical study, people attributed negative and loss-valued characteristics (adjectives) to older age (Heckhausen et al., 1989). However, such evaluations lead to questions regarding how the criteria that constitute gains and losses can be defined. The concepts are manifold, and opinions diverge. One can discuss contentiously and in great detail what gains and losses mean. What is better or worse in life is subject to contextual conditions or the evaluative standards of individuals.

In the following section, I present criteria for well-being that are pursued by many people and discussed as outcomes in developmental theories. Occasionally, it is claimed that we can intentionally pursue such ideal states, for instance, through techniques such as realistic goal setting or meditation. One should consider, however, that states of well-being happen to us to a certain degree. Whether or not they happen is at best indirectly linked to personal wishes. It should become evident that intentional striving and the ability to change one’s level of satisfaction are different processes that are only slightly and partially interconnected and mediated by the automatic processes that I introduced in Chapters 3 and 4. In any case, the heterogeneity of well-being and adaptation criteria illustrate the spectrum that individuals associate with their preferences and developmental ideals.

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