socioemotional selectivity theory, mental health, trauma, old age


Empirical tests of socioemotional selectivity theory support the contention that the developmental trend in adulthood to focus increasingly on fewer, but emotionally significant, social partners is associated positively with psychological well-being. Tenets of the theory, however, also suggest conditions in which selectivity could instead lead to an increase in negative emotional experiences. In particular, if the socioemotional world of the individual includes emotional distress, selective focus on emotions and close relationships may detract from rather than enhance well-being. In the current study, we examined selectivity and associated well-being in Holocaust survivors, Japanese-American internment camp survivors, and comparably-aged people who lived through World War II but did not experience major trauma. We predicted that selectivity would relate to positive mental health in all groups except the Holocaust survivors who, on average, experience elevated levels of negative affect and social networks that include other survivors also experiencing distress. Results generally supported these hypotheses, and are discussed in light of individual and group differences in socioemotional ageing, as well as the implications for the generality of social developmental theories of adaptive functioning

Original Publication Citation

Isaacowitz, D. M., Smith, T. B., & Carstensen, L. L. (2003). Socioemotional selectivity and mental health among trauma survivors in old age. Ageing International, 28, 181-199.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

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Permanent URL


Springer Science & Business Media




David O. McKay School of Education


Counseling Psychology and Special Education