Personal goals play a major role in creating direction in our lives. They consist of underlying motivations for our behavior and how we perceive our own ever-changing environment. Across the life span, personal goals change to match our needs, with young adults striving mainly for achievement, like completing a college degree or starting a career, and middle-aged and older adults seeking a balance between functioning independently and sharing their lives with others (e. g., children, spouses, etc.).
Selective optimization with compensation (SOC) is an important theoretical model which suggests that development occurs as we continuously update our personal goals to match our appraisal of available resources to obtain those goals (Baltes & Baltes, 1990). We choose manageable goals based upon our interests as well as physical and cognitive strengths and limitations.
As we grow older our limitations become more salient and require us to reevaluate our interests. Therefore, in older adulthood, research suggests that interests shift toward physical health and socio-emotional domains (Carstensen & Mikels, 2005; Rowe & Kahn, 1998).
This shift in priorities means that goals for the same event may be perceived differently by older and younger adults. A clear example of this shift in goal selection can be seen in research that examines how younger and older adults prioritize how they would like to perform in a dual-task situation. Younger and older adults were asked to memorize a list of words while simultaneously maintaining their balance as they navigated through an obstacle course (Li, Lindenberger, Freund, & Baltes, 2001). Although age differences in performing two tasks at the same time were more costly for the memory task than for the walking task, older adults chose to forgo aids that would improve their memory (e. g., a list) and instead chose to use aids designed to optimize walking performance (e. g., a handrail). When deciding which was more important to them, memory performance versus balance, older adults displayed a preference for their physical safety even if it meant that they would perform badly on a cognitive test. From this example, we see that life-span shifts in personal goals can be both helpful and harmful.
Goal selection requires that we thoughtfully choose where we should invest our resources. For example, in the lab younger adults are primarily motivated to achieve maximum performance on any cognitive task presented to them. Older adults take a different perspective. They prefer to maintain steady performance by optimizing their current resources rather than risking loss with an unknown strategy (Ebner, Freund, & Baltes, 2006). Thus, although older adults are less willing than younger adults to invest energy into improving their cognitive performance, their strategy choice is more optimal for them because they are more interested in retaining their autonomy by maintaining abilities at their current level. Although this does not directly translate into cognitive gains, it does help older adults optimize their cognitive performance in those domains
that they prioritize in their lives (Riediger, Freund, & Baltes, 2005). Although we cannot compensate for all of the resource limitations that come with advancing age, we can invest those resources we have into those goals that maximize an independent lifestyle and a positive sense of well-being.
Along these lines, recent work by Carstensen and her colleagues suggests that the pursuit of emotionally gratifying situations becomes a primary motivation that can substantially influence cognition in the latter half of the life span (Carstensen & Mikels, 2005). We therefore turn next to the impact of emotional processing goals on cognition.