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The Influence of Aging Self-Stereotypes on Strategy Change from Goal Assimilation to Goal Accommodation

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The processes of goal assimilation and goal accommodation refer to different strategies in dealing with goals, that have become unavailable or extremely difficult to reach. Whereas the process of assimilation can be seen as a more active approach to reach a goal, accommodation refers to a more passive, internal cognitive process that changes the valence of goals. Thus the location of the focus on where to find a solution for a given problem differs for those two strategies: Whereas assimilation directs the focus towards the external world, accommodation directs the focus on the internal world.

Goal assimilation provides persistence by adjusting the strategy to reach a goal in changing environments. However goals might become unreachable or so difficult to reach that the amount of energy spent is in no relation to the possible benefits. At that point goal accommodation starts to change the underlying valence of the goal structure. The changed structure will then provide different motivation patterns that are more ecological in the perspective of the changed environment. In that sense it helps people to retain a sense of control and keeps them moving forward.

If both processes are needed for a healthy development of an individual (as has been suggested recently), there must be a critical point in time during which goal assimilation is abandoned and goal accommodation starts. This is the point at which the internal, subjective heuristics detect that for personal health, safety, happiness, etc. it is better to accommodate than assimilate a specific goal. Finding variables to predict this point in time might be very helpful in order to build a good model of goal strategies. A simple decision heuristic could look something like that:

Expected utility – Expected energy = Motivation (X)

whereas Expected utility is defined as personal value*chance of goal achievement.

As long as the motivation (X) remains positive, the course of action is “business as usual”. When the internal check reveals that the X (motivation) has become negative, the alarm rings and the assimilation process is made to check for different solutions to the equation, firstly concerning the expected energy needed for goal achievement (for example finding an easier way of achieving something by asking someone else to help). If no possible solution is found to the equation that renders X positive, the process of accommodation is activated. It checks if the variable “Goal achievement” can be redefined in such a way as to make X positive. Changing the goal valence might actually take some time and so accommodation starts working on the goal valence until motivation can be restored. This implies that there might be a period of temporary stop within the system, when there is not enough motivation to pursue a goal.

However the heuristics depend on the assumptions made by different processes and are therefore subject to possible biases. The self-view might be one of those processes that influence the information on which the heuristic decision is based. Especially for older people self-stereotyping might be an influencing factor in making the switch from goal assimilation to goal accommodation. Self-stereotyping refers to the process of applying a stereotype to the own self. In this regard it is important to differentiate between implicit and explicit stereotypes. It has been shown with many different implicit stereotypes that they are active in members of the stereotyped group on an implicit level, even if they can not be found using explicit experimental paradigms. This might be especially true for aging stereotypes, as one study reviewing the correlation between explicit and implicit beliefs found the lowest correlation between explicit and implicit beliefs on aging beliefs. One possible explanation could be that aging stereotypes are internalized during the whole life, from very early on. Those implicit knowledge structures might be difficult to access explicitly in later life. This would also imply that implicit aging stereotype are resistant to change. Implicit stereotypes have consistently shown to influence old people’s behaviour, such as their performance on a memory tests. The predominant (implicit) stereotype in the western world is that aging is a bad thing, that old people are weak and have decreased cognitive an physical abilities. How could such cognitions implicitly influence behaviour?

Let’s first have a look at the left part of the equation “Expected utility”. Older people have less time to live, so the expected utility of a goal, in which value accumulates with time, should be lower. For example if you feel that death is waiting around the corner, you might not be so motivated to stop smoking or put on sunscreen, because the possibility that you will earn the fruits of the seeds planted is very low, therefore expected value is low. Since you might already have gone through a lot of episodes of goal valence change, some goals will not be interesting anymore right from the start, like drinking and dancing all night in the club. In that way the valence of all goals are changed, as you go along, until they do not prove problematic anymore. This could also explain, why life satisfaction remains quite constant in elderly people: Since most goals have been accommodated there are not so many things to be depressed about anymore. Another point would be the expected possibility to reach a specific goal. Self-stereotyping might make it harder to imagine specific outcomes, that are not conform to the stereotype. This could lead to an underestimation of the chance of reaching a goal.

Now let’s turn to the right side of the equation that reads “Energy needed”. The amount of energy that can be invested in the achievement of any given goal is limited by the resources available, which change during lifetime. Usually when we are young we have a lot of time, physical and mental strength and a good social network. Those resources might decrease when we grow older (or am I just stereotyping?). Thus goals that require those resources become harder to reach. For some goals a minimum of a specific resource is necessary, but in most cases a lack of resources can be compensated by other resources. However, exchange of resources is probably not 1:1 and the price you pay might be related to how many resources you are missing. For example if you want to walk somewhere, but you are very slow at foot and you do not have time, you can take a taxi. But that costs you money. The slower you get, the less time you have, the more money general transport will cost you. Taking a taxi once a week to visit someone in a different city might be okay with your pool of resources, but taking a taxi several times a day, for example to go to the letterbox, might not be okay. However this could be compensated by having a good social network, someone who brings the mail along…The point I want to make is this: Resources can be exchanged, but with growing age there might be tasks, especially those that rely heavily on depleted resources, that become extremely costly. Thus the goal might still be very valuable to you, but the costs too high, which will decrease motivation. As different streams of resources become diminished there might also be a problem with choices. If you have plenty of resources available to you there might be a lot of ways in which you can assimilate a goal, thus you have a lot of opportunities to reach your goal in a different way. When your resources become more concentrated in one dimension (for example you can barely think, move, have no friends, but a few million dollars left) it might be harder to identify different solutions to the problem, or there might be less solutions available to you.

Thus having less resources available might prompt you to make the switch earlier on. The aging stereotype might suggest that one has less resources available than actually is the case. It might also be the case that the aging stereotype reduces the positive bias that people normally have about their own resources. On top of that, solutions to the motivation-equation that do not fit stereotypical behaviour of elderly people might not reach consciousness. In the same light the process of accommodation might be more stereotypical for elderly people, and thus more accessible. Over time, it might become the predominant process.

So can we propose some kind of action that would optimize the process of goal optimization and goal accommodation? The process itself should, in my view, not be the target of any change. However one could look at the implicit self-stereotype and see if it is a protective factor, by holding back older people to launch dangerous endeavors, or if it is holding them back to live a fulfilled life. Some studies have lately suggested that implicit attitudes might be open to change, for example using the AAT. Systematic search patterns for available resources and possible causes of action could also contribute to cancel out the negative side-effects of self-stereotyping in older people.


I would like to finish with a slightly different, but related thought, that came to my mind while writing the essay. Most old people explain that with old age they come to understand what is really important to them. However there is an alternative explanation to the change in goal valence suggested by the heuristic model. Imagine that you perceive yourself doing something. You might infer that you are actually motivated to do so, and even more if there are obstacles to your goal that you have to overcome. When you are old, activities usually bear more obstacles than before and the total range of activities is limited. Thus the perceived motivation (and probably the increased goal value) might be due to the obstacles you encounter and not to some late insight into the own emotions.

Written by Martin Metzmacher

September 30, 2008 at 9:56 pm