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A conversation with Jana Nikitin

An interview

We recently talked to Jana Nikitin about her paper, "Individual differences in habitual social goals and daily well-being: The role of age and relationship closeness", which is scheduled for publication in the special issue on aging at the European Journal of Personality. Jana is professor of Personality and Developmental Psychology at the University of Basel.

Read more about the article below!

Picture Jana.jpg

Q: Hi Jana! What is your study about?

The study is about age differences in approach and avoidance goals and their consequences. Satisfying social relationships are essential across the entire life span but there are substantial differences in which goals people pursue in these relationships. Generally, we differentiate between social approach goals (i.e., approaching positive social outcomes such as love and acceptance) and social avoidance goals (i.e., avoiding negative social outcomes such as conflict or rejection). Lot of research exists on social approach and avoidance goals in young adulthood. From this research, we learn that social approach goals have positive consequences for people’s well-being, whereas social avoidance goals have negative consequences for people’s well-being.

Our aim was to find out, first, whether these findings can be generalized to older adulthood, a period that was defined in age as about 60 and older. Moreover, we wanted to know whether it matters if people pursue social approach and avoidance goals in very close relationships (with their spouse or closest family) or in peripheral relationships (with their work colleagues or neighbors).

Our hypothesis was that social approach goals become less and social avoidance goals more adaptive as people age, particularly in peripheral relationships. This might be the case because young and older people have to master different developmental tasks. Developmental tasks in young adulthood are about establishing a family, developing a satisfactory working life, and establishing one’s social network. For these tasks, it is essential to approach unfamiliar people and to seek positive relationships with them. Therefore, approach goals should be highly adaptive, whereas avoidance goals should be highly maladaptive in young adulthood. Developmental tasks change later in life. Older people have already established their social network and it is more important to keep this network instead of enlarging it. So, social approach goals, particularly social approach goals in peripheral social relationships, should become less beneficial as people age.

In addition, whereas all individuals experience physiological responses following the occurrence of negative social interactions, such as an increased heart rate, older people’s physiological system needs a longer recovery phase after such experiences. Thus, avoiding negative social interactions might become more beneficial as people age. This should be the case particularly in peripheral relationships, which are less meaningful for older adults, but bear the risk of being negative because they are less predictable than close relationships.

We examined these hypotheses by asking adults who were between 18 and 80 years old to report up to nine specific relationships with different levels of closeness (for example, the spouse or a work colleague) and, subsequently, to indicate levels of approach and avoidance goals in these relationships (e.g., I am trying to move toward growth and development in my relationship with XY, or I am trying to avoid disagreements and conflicts with XY). Subsequently, we asked the participants to report their daily well-being (subjective well-being, subjective health, and satisfaction with daily social encounters) on seven consecutive days.

Q: What were important findings and implications of those findings?

We found exactly the pattern of findings that we’d expected. In close relationships, younger and older adults did not differ in their levels of approach and avoidance goals. Both groups had higher levels of approach goals and lower levels of avoidance goals. In addition, all profited from approach goals in their daily well-being and were negatively affected by avoidance goals, so that their general inclinations (i.e., more approach than avoidance) was adaptive for them. In peripheral relationships, we found that older adults reported more avoidance goals than younger adults. In addition, avoidance goals in peripheral relationships were positively associated with older adults’ daily well-being, while younger adults’ daily well-being was positively associated with approach goals.

One important implication of these findings is that we cannot generalize findings from studies with young adults to older age groups. People in different ages have different developmental tasks to master and different roles to fulfill, so that what is beneficial (or detrimental) in young adulthood is not necessarily beneficial (or detrimental) as people age.

Another important implication is that the age-related differences may not hold for all members of an age group or for all situations. Our findings suggest that there are substantial individual differences within the age groups. Furthermore, although older adults did not generally profit – in terms of their well-being – from approach goals in peripheral relationships, they did when they had a positive interaction with a peripheral social partner on a particular day. One possibility for why this is the case is that, usually, people are less willing to interact with older people than with younger age groups. Therefore, older adults’ approach goals in peripheral relationships might lead to less positive social encounters than younger adults’ approach goals. However, when older adults do experience positive interactions with peripheral relationships, they profit from their approach goals in terms of well-being as much as younger adults do. Future research should examine this further, however.

Q: What made you decide to study habitual social goals and daily well-being?

We know from previous research that satisfying social relationships are essential for people’s flourishing and that people literally die of loneliness. Thus, we find it important to elaborate on factors¬¬ that contribute to people’s satisfying relationships. Social goals are one important factor not only because they drive people’s behavior but also because they enable people to adapt to changing life circumstances. This is why we think that they are particularly suited to investigate age-related differences in social behavior and well-being.

Personally, I never planned on getting into the developmental research. I started out examining social goals in young adulthood and then began to wonder whether these principles would also hold in older adulthood, a time which is generally seen as one of decline and loss. Over time – and with increasing expertise – the topic has become more interesting to me, and I believe the literature on older adulthood has much to offer. Despite general beliefs, older adulthood is multifaceted and offers much more than decline and loss. In a sense, it is much like a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that if you think nothing can be accomplished in this life stage, nothing will.

Q: Where do you see yourself in the (near) future?

With respect to my research, I am currently working with computer scientists to extract emotional meaning from people’s speech in daily social interactions. This would enable us to go beyond self-report when we investigate people’s daily well-being in social situations. In addition, we are conducting an intervention study to increase people responsiveness to other people (i.e., “caring more about others”), in order to counteract the negative consequences of social avoidance goals in daily social interactions. The reasoning behind this is that older adults generally are more avoidance-oriented, but do not experience negative consequences because of their high levels of responsiveness towards other people that enables them to keep high levels of emotional closeness in the interaction. We have correlational evidence of the beneficial effects of responsiveness in social relationships but we lack causal evidence. It would be interesting to also see what the effects on the interaction partner are, but this is – at least with the data that we have – unfortunately not possible yet.

With respect to my career, I am currently assistant professor in Personality and Developmental Psychology, at the University of Basel, and I hope that I will be able to continue my research and teaching as full professor in the near future.

Q:  Do you have any tips or advice for young researchers?

The most important tip that I have is that you need to start early to build up your scientific network. People often view networking as something negative (in terms of “strategic”), but networking can also just be connecting with people with whom you get along. I think it is often more important to connect with people from your own level (e.g., PhDs with other PhDs) than with people who are higher up, who you think can be of use to you. In my experience, the best collaborations are with people that I would choose as friends, as I’m usually more committed to these projects and to bringing them to a satisfying end.

Second, you have to choose a topic that really interests you and then try to do the best possible research, regardless of practical boundaries. I think that the only way to do qualitatively high research is to be enthusiastic about what one is doing. Related to this, is that you need to start early in your career to apply for research funds, as they enable you to conduct good research and be relatively independent.

Furthermore, you need to be aware of the fact that science demands geographical flexibility. Only when you have been working in different labs, will you collect enough experience to develop your own research personality. Think twice whether several moves is something for you and discuss it with your romantic partner.

Finally, do not forget why you are doing science. Publications help your career on but the main purpose of our research should be to improve people’s lives.

Q: Thank you for the interview, Jana!

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