Another important aspect of self-concept and creating a scenario about ourselves is the ability to project ourselves into the future and to speculate about what we might be like (Markus & Nurius, 1986). How do we do this? Projecting ourselves into the future involves creating possible selves that represent what we could become, what we would like to become, and what we are afraid of becoming. What we could or would like to become often reflects personal goals; we may see ourselves as leaders, as rich and famous, or as in shape. What we are afraid of becoming may show up in our fear of being undervalued, overweight, or lonely. Our possible selves are very powerful motivators; indeed, much of our behavior can be viewed as efforts to approach or avoid these various possible selves and to protect the current view of self (Markus & Nurius, 1986).
The topic of possible selves offers a way to understand how both stability and change operate in adults’ personality. On the one hand, possible selves tend to remain stable for at least some period of time and are measurable with psychometrically sound scales (Hooker, 1999; Ryff, 1991). On the other hand, possible selves may change in response to efforts at personal growth (Cross & Markus, 1991; Frazier et al., 2000; Hooker, 1991), which would be expected from ego development theory. In particular, possible selves facilitate adaptation to new roles across the life span. For example, a full-time mother who pictures herself as an executive once her child goes to school may begin to take evening courses to acquire new skills. Possible selves thus offer a way to bridge the experience of the current self and our imagined future self.
Researchers have begun studying age differences in the construction of possible selves (Cross & Markus, 1991; Frazier et al., 2000; Frazier et al., 2002; Hooker, 1999; Morfei et al., 2001). In a set of similar studies conducted by Cross and Markus (1991) and Hooker and colleagues (Frazier et al., 2000; Hooker, 1999; Hooker et al., 1996; Morfei et al., 2001), people across the adult life span were asked to describe their hoped-for and feared possible selves. Responses are
344 CHAPTER 9 grouped into categories (such as family, personal, material, relationships, occupation). Several interesting age differences emerged. In terms of hoped-for selves, young adults listed as most important family concerns (Cross & Markus, 1991) (for instance, marrying the right person), whereas Hooker et al.
(1996) also found getting started in an occupation was important in this age group. In contrast, middle adults listed family concerns last; their main issues were personal concerns (such as being a more loving and caring person) (Cross & Markus, 1991). By ages 40 to 59, Cross and Markus found that family issues again became most common (such as being a parent who can “let go” of his or her children). Hooker and Kaus (1994) also found that reaching and maintaining satisfactory performance in one’s occupational career and accepting and adjusting to the physiological changes of middle age were also important to this age group. Both sets of studies found that for the two younger groups, being overweight and, for women, becoming wrinkled and unattractive when old were commonly mentioned as feared possible selves. For the middle-aged and older adult groups, fear of having Alzheimer’s disease or being unable to care for oneself was a frequent response.
For adults over 60, researchers found that personal issues were most prominent (e. g., being able to be active and healthy for another decade at least) (Cross & Markus, 1991; Smith & Freund, 2002). Similarly Hooker and colleagues (Frazier et al., 2000; Frazier et al., 2002; Morfei et al., 2001) found that continuity in possible selves was much more prevalent than change in later life especially in independence, physical, and lifestyle areas. However, they also found that change did occur in older age. The greatest amount of change occurred in the health domain; it became the most important domain for hoped-for and feared possible selves. The health domain is the most sensitive and central to the self in the context of aging (Frazier et al., 2000).
Overall, adolescents and young adults are far more likely to have multiple possible selves and to believe more strongly that they can actually become the hoped-for self and successfully avoid the feared possible self. By old age, though, both the number of possible selves and strength of belief have
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decreased. Older adults are more likely to believe that neither the hoped-for nor the feared possible self is under their personal control. These findings may reflect differences with age in personal motivation, beliefs in personal control, and the need to explore new options.
Other researchers have examined possible selves in a different way by asking adults to describe their present, past, future, and ideal self (Keyes & Ryff, 1999; Ryff, 1991). Instead of examining categories of possible selves, this approach focuses on people’s perceptions of change over time. The data indicate that young and middle-aged adults see themselves as improving with age (like Linus in the cartoon) and expecting to continue getting better in the future. In contrast, older adults see themselves as having remained stable over time, but they foresee decline in their future. These findings may indicate that the older adults have internalized negative stereotypes about aging, especially because they are well educated and currently healthy (see Chapter 8).
This general look at the issues that most influence possible selves indicates that the most important ones differ with age. But how are these issues reflected in aspects of personal well-being? Do the age differences in possible selves depend on whether one is projecting into the future or into the past? Such questions require a more complex approach.
This is exactly the approach taken by Ryff (1991). In a fascinating series of studies, she adopted the notion of possible selves as a way to redefine the meaning of well-being in adulthood and showed
how adults’ views of themselves are different at various points in adulthood. Examining the responses of hundreds of adults, Ryff (1989, 1991) identified six dimensions of psychological well-being for adults and discovered many important age and gender differences in well-being based on these components:
Self-acceptance: having a positive view of oneself; acknowledging and accepting the multiple parts of oneself; and feeling positive about one’s past
Positive relation with others: having warm, satisfying relationships with people; being concerned with their welfare; being empathic, affectionate, and intimate with them; and understanding the reciprocity of relationships
Autonomy: being independent and determining one’s own life; being able to resist social pressures to think or behave in a particular way; evaluating one’s life by internal standards
Environmental mastery: being able to manipulate, control, and effectively use resources and opportunities
Purpose in life: having goals in life and a sense of direction in one’s life; feeling that one’s present and past life has meaning; having a reason for living
Personal growth: feeling a need for continued personal improvement; seeing oneself as getting better and being open to new experiences; growing in self-knowledge and personal effectiveness
How do these aspects of well-being change in adulthood? The How Do We Know? feature has one answer.
Taken together, the research on possible selves opens up new and exciting avenues for personality research. Possible selves research offers a way to examine the importance of personal perception in determining motivation to achieve and change, as well as a way to study personality systematically with sound research methods. For example, it enables us to examine the creation of scenarios and life stories systematically. Because it provides an interesting bridge between different approaches to personality theory, it will likely be the focus of much research in the future.