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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Lebenswissen­schaftliche Fakultät - Institut für Psychologie

Theoretical Background

 

As the conceptual backdrop, Germany has an increasingly aging society with the number of Germans aged 65 years and older doubling within the next ten years. Aging research has come a long way over the past decades and has shed light on the various different health, cognitive, and social challenges older people are typically confronted with. Yet, we are only at the beginning to fully understand the remaining resources, strengths, and human capital that many older adults retain and how we as a society may make better use of such latent potential.

Our structured PhD program is devoted to better understand one of these key strengths. Specifically, our primary interest is in the self-and emotion regulation dynamics that help people deal with and adapt to the challenges of their everyday life. We define the term regulation very broadly to encompass diverse, but highly relevant aspects for mastering challenges, including its biological, behavioral, cognitive, social learning, and emotional components. Drawing from and qualifying central theories of self- and emotion regulation dynamics across adulthood (Carstensen, 2006; Charles, 2010), we assume that people in midlife and old age can draw from their wealth of experiences to master these challenges. At the same time, however, limitations often emerge at a number of different levels that may make it increasingly difficult to employ these acquired skills. To illustrate, older adults often are confronted with age stereotypes and biased perceptions from people they are interacting with, which seriously undermine their effectiveness to act upon their environment. Our approach thus takes a broader perspective and specifically examines person-environment interactions in shaping self- and emotion regulation.

Another central limitation are the physiological correlates of self- and emotion regulation dynamics. For example, health implications of poor regulation are widely documented (Bolger & Schilling, 1991; Cacioppo et al., 1998), but we are only at the very beginning of understanding how such health effects accumulate over time, whether the functional implications depend upon the specific phase of life a person is in, and how early markers of later diseases look like. For example, it is an open question how much time people spend in their everyday lives in emotional states that are in a spectrum that may subsequently result in long-term health-related losses and associated health care costs. With the diverse set of expertise represented in our initiative, we attempt to advance the field by examining adaptation dynamics at a number of different levels of analysis, and particularly the insights gained through the biological expertise promises to be highly informative (e.g., its biological underpinning, circadian rhythms).

Third, we will adopt new methodological approaches that allow us to provide a unique perspective on adaptation that cannot be gained with approaches typically used in the literature (e.g., cross-sectional or long-term longitudinal data), including measures of stability and fluctuations from one situation to the next, the speed of regulation, and within-person couplings of functioning in different domains. In examining the self-regulation dynamics across adulthood, we draw from seminal conceptions of successful aging and move those several steps ahead.

As our first specific aim, we ask how self-regulation dynamics look like at various different levels of consideration. We approach the question from multiple angles, including differences in chronological age, in the time scales over which self-regulation dynamics emerge, and the contexts in which regulation takes place. The overarching aim is to explore and (whenever possible) to quantify the resources and to identify their boundary conditions.

As our second specific aim, we ask questions revolving around individual differences in self-regulation dynamics and the antecedents, correlates, and consequences of those. For example, to better understand some of the underlying pathways, we ask what the precursors in midlife are that help distinguish those who will live well and age successfully later on from those who don't? Our adult lifespan perspective is crucial in helping us to identify early markers of sub-optimal adaptation that may become visible much later - and in turn may eventually inform and design interventions to be implemented at a time in life when such modifications may still be possible and effective because disease has not manifested, yet. The overarching aim is to move towards identifying promising avenues to optimize living and working environments so as to capitalize on the particular strengths and resources older people have.

In pursuing our aims, we take advantage of the various research perspectives combined in our interdisciplinary collaboration through behavioral, experiential, cognitive-neuronal, clinical, emotional, and biological perspectives. We make use of multiple methodological approaches, ranging from lab-based experiments under controlled conditions to multi-day "in-vivo" assessments as people go about their daily routines, and data obtained from several thousand participants in large-scale long-term longitudinal panel surveys. This methodological pluralism along with our research group-specific sets of expertise, and our common language will put us in a strong position to arrive at a broad and nuanced understanding of the phenomenon. The layers of analyses and perspectives complement and inform one another nicely. To illustrate, large-scale longitudinal studies help in identifying and thoroughly describing a given phenomenon of self-regulation dynamics in the general population. In the next step, small process-oriented studies will help to investigate the underlying experiential, behavioral, and psychophysiological mechanisms and their interactions in a rigorous manner.

 

 

References

 

Bolger, N., & Schilling, E. A. (1991). Personality and problems of everyday life: The role of neuroticism in exposure and reactivity to daily stressors. Journal of Personality, 59, 356–386.

Cacioppo, J. T., Berntson, G. G., Malarkey, W. B., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Sheridan, J. F., Poehlmann, K. M., Burleson, M. H., Ernst, J. M., Hawkley, L. C., & Glaser, R. (1998). Autonomic, neuroendocrine, and immune responses to psychological stress: The reactivity hypothesis. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 840, 664-673.

Charles, S.T., (2010). Strength and vulnerability integration: a model of emotional well-being across adulthood. Psychological bulletin, 136 (6), 1068.

Carstensen, L.L. (2006). The influence of a sense of time on human development. Science, 312, 1913-1915.