Final Decentrations

Personal Goals, Rationality
Perspectives, and the Awareness of
Life’s Finitude
J. Barndtstadter, K. Rothermund, D.
Kranz, W. Kühn
• Personal goals extend into the future lend meaning and structure to
• With the fading of time yet-to-be-lived and the closing of action
paths that relate the present self to a projected future self, futureoriented goals and activities tend to lose their motivating potential.
• The loss of ‘‘future meaning’’ (Reker, et al., 1987) can breed feelings of
alienation and depression.
• The terminal phases of life, older people do not differ dramatically
from younger groups in life satisfaction, self-esteem, perceived
control, and related indicators of subjective life quality (Diener, Suh, Lucas, &
Smith, 1999; Rothermund & Brandtsta¨dter, 2003).
• The flexibility of the aging self basically hinges on the interplay of
two adaptive processes:
(a) on assimilative activities that aim at shaping one’s life and personal
development according to personal goals (later life, efforts to
prevent or compensate functional deficits)
(b) on accommodative processes by which ambitions and goals are
adjusted to situational constraints and changes in action resources
(in later life, accommodative processes are driven by losses in
various areas of life and functioning, and by the age-inherent
shrinking of residual lifetime).
The two adaptive modes are antagonistically related, but can
complement each other in concrete episodes of coping; the balance tips
toward the accommodative side when active-assimilative efforts turn out
as ineffective, or when goals drift off the feasible range.
• The present study involves a sequence of studies that combine
correlational and experimental approaches; inter-individual
differences in extrinsic-instrumental and intrinsic-valuerational
orientations are assessed with different methods
(a self-report questionnaire and an implicit attitude measure).
• First, different age groups are compared with respect to extrinsicinstrumental and intrinsic-valuerational orientations (Study 1) to
explore possible mediating mechanisms, then examine to what
degree the postulated changes can be experimentally produced by
inducing a cognitive focus on death (Study 2).
• Two final experiments serve to replicate and expand the findings,
with a particular focus on the moderating role of accommodative
flexibility and on implicit evaluative processes (Studies 3 and 4).
• This research was guided by the following hypotheses that are
derived from the dual-process model:
• (1) Increasing age is expected to be associated with a reduction
in extrinsic-instrumental goals and with an increase in intrinsicvaluerational orientations.
• (2) This pattern of findings is also expected to emerge for
younger people if the finitude of one’s personal life is made
• (3) Accommodative flexibility is assumed to facilitate the
proposed age-related and mortality-related changes in value
359 participants (168 women, 191 men) from urban area in
Southwestern Germany ages between 35-84 years old and they
were randomly selected.
Occupational status, income level, and education was represented
of the general population.
In cross-sectional comparison they divided in 5 age cohorts
(1: 35-44 N=83, 2: 45-54 N=71, 3: 55-64 N=70, 4: 65-74
N=83, 5: 75-84 N=52) and gender was equal.
• Procedure
Questionnaire was designed for this study in differences in goal
The instrument addressed
a) extrinsic-instrumental strivings related to achievement,
competence, and power
b) intrinsic-valuerational orientations related to authenticity, intimacy,
sprituality, and altruism.
Personal importance of each item was rated on a Likert-type scale
ranging 0-6 (unimportant-extremely important)
• Age effects for the two scales,
• Extrinsic-instrumental strivings lose importance over the age range
studied, whereas increasing emphasis is placed on intrinsicvaluerational orientations.
• In a 2 (Value Domains) x 5 (Age Groups) ANOVA, a significant
interaction emerged, p < .001, indicating that age gradients
differ for intrinsic-valuerational and extrinsic-instrumental strivings.
• Significant interaction, separate ANOVAs with Age Groups as
factor were conducted for the two scales, a highly significant age
effect was found for extrinsic-instrumental strivings, p < .001,
indicating an age-related decline. For intrinsic-valuerational
orientations, a significant age effect revealed an age-related
increase, p < .001.
• Growing tendency with age to shift from extrinsic-instrumental
goals to a more intrinsic, ego-transcending orientation.
• These cross-sectional findings, leave unanswered the question as
to the mechanisms that underlie the observed patterns:
The age variable is known to confound age and cohort effects, and
more important in the present context – it also confound the
amounts of time lived with the amount of time-yet-to-be-lived.
• Explores whether response tendencies in the questionnaire on
value orientations are affected when thoughts about death and
dying are made more salient.
• 371 participants aged 35–84 years (179 women, 192 men).
• Subjects were grouped into 5 age cohorts same as Study 1.
• Gender was balanced within cohorts, (no participant of Study 2
participated in Study 1).
• Procedure
• Participants completed the goal orientations questionnaire.
• Internal consistencies and inter-correlations of the 7-item scales were
similar to Study 1.
• Concerns about death and dying (Questions about Death and Dying,
• The 17 questions concerned (1) how one would deal with a serious
illness; (2) personal preferences of how one would like to die; (3) fears
with respect to the end of life; (4) subjective meanings of death and
• This instrument served to induce a ‘‘memento effect’’ in the sense given,
the question was whether it would produce shifts in reported goal
orientations comparable to the pattern observed in Study 1.
• In the experimental group (N = 189), the QDD was introduced prior to
the scales on goal orientations, whereas the sequence was reversed in
the control condition (N = 182). The effectiveness of this procedure was
checked in a pilot study.
• Effects of age and death saliency on intrinsic-valuerational and extrinsicinstrumental strivings were assessed with a 5(Age Groups) x 2 (Value
Domains) x 2 (Death Saliency) ANOVA.
• The Age Groups x Value Domains interaction was again highly significant,
p < .001.
• The expected Death Saliency x Value Domains interaction was also
significant, p < .05.
• Neither the Age Groups x Death Saliency interaction nor the three-way
interaction reached significance ps > .08.
• Replicating the findings of Study 1, opposite age effects were found for
intrinsic-valuerational orientations, p < .001; linear increase: p < .001,
and extrinsic-instrumental strivings, p < .10; linear decrease: p < .01.
• The main effect of death saliency was significant for extrinsic-instrumental
strivings, p < .01; the personal importance of these strivings is
deemphasized by participants who in advance had answered the QDD.
• Intrinsic-valuerational orientations were not significantly affected by the
death saliency manipulation.
• The finding of an age-related shift from extrinsic-instrumental to
intrinsic-valuerational orientations was replicated in Study 2.
• The findings lend further support to contention that individualisticextrinsic strivings are dampened when people see their future as limited
in time; the experimental effects of the death saliency manipulation in
part reproduce the age effects that were found in Studies 1 and 2.
• Consistent with an accommodation-theoretical account, Study 2 revealed
that an experimentally induced narrowing of future perspective first of
all induces a tendency to downscale instrumental, future-related goals.
As the present data suggest, this effect may not automatically and
simultaneously entail a stronger emphasis on intrinsic or egotranscending
• From a developmental point of view, it remains nonetheless plausible
that the decentering from individualistic strivings is a necessary
precondition that can pave the way toward more intrinsic, value-based
• A focus on culturally shared values appears to include – at least to
some extent – a shift away from individualistic to more communityoriented goals.
• Accommodation theory to the contrary predicts a downgrading of
instrumental, achievement-oriented values under conditions of
fading action resources and life-time reserves. Under such
conditions – whether accompanied by anxiety or not – it may
become increasingly questionable whether one will experience or
be able to enjoy possible future benefits.
• Time-related concerns should contribute to deemphasizing personal
benefits in the person’s selection of goals, and accordingly enhance
a disengagement from extrinsic-instrumental orientations.
• Taken together, the results from Studies 1 and 2 support the
assumption that an increased sensitivity to life’s finitude enhances a
shift from extrinsic-instrumental to intrinsic-valuerational
• Attempts to replicate findings using a different mortality-salience
induction. The shift in goal orientations reflects an accommodative
process as described in the introductory section, a further aim was
to investigate whether the mentioned effects are moderated by
differences in accommodative flexibility.
• Sample
50 undergraduate students (32 female; average age 22.9 years) from
the University of Trier participated for partial course credit.
• Procedure
Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions:
-In the experimental group, participants were asked to imagine their final
day of life and to write down in an open format how they would like to
spend that day.
-The control group received a different type of aversive scenario that
used dental pain as a control topic. After working for 5 min on the
scenario tasks, participants completed the scale of accommodative
flexibility (FGA; Brandtstadter & Renner, 1990). The 15 items refer to the readiness to
flexibly adjust ambitions and goals to given opportunities. Items were
rated on a 2 (strongly disagree) to +2 (strongly agree) scale.
Finally, the scales to assess extrinsic-instrumental and intrinsic-valuerational
orientations were administered. Internal consistencies and correlations
were comparable to the previous studies (p = .05).
• Measure created for the postulated shift in orientations, were
computed the difference between the scale values for extrinsicinstrumental and intrinsic-valuerational orientations.
• This aggregated measure was regressed on a group variable
coding experimental condition (1 = mortality salience, 0 = control)
on FGA, and in a second step on the interaction term for
Experimental Condition x FGA.
• Shift in priorities emerges quite clear-cut: Reflecting about the
terminal phase of one’s life enhances a predominance of intrinsicvaluerational strivings over extrinsic-instrumental ones ( p < .01).
• This effect was qualified by accommodative flexibility: It was more
pronounced for participants scoring high on FGA (p < .01 for the
• In accordance with the results of Study 2, the mortality induction
primarily affected extrinsic-instrumental strivings: Importance
ratings for this domain were lower in the experimental group than
in the control condition (p = .08); this effect was amplified by
accommodative flexibility (p = .05).
• Intrinsic-valuerational strivings, by contrast, appeared to be only
slightly affected in the experimental group (p < .10); again, this
effect tended to be moderated by accommodative flexibility
(p < .10).
• Across all seven subscales, effects were in the predicted direction.
• Study 3 replicated the pattern of differential effects of death
salience on value orientations with a different mortality salience
manipulation and in a younger sample.
• Imagining the last day of one’s life led to a decrease in extrinsicinstrumental orientations, whereas intrinsic-valuerational strivings
slightly increased.
• Mortality-induced shift in priorities was stronger for participants
scoring high on accommodative flexibility.
• This finding supports reserachers’ claim, the observed change in
goal orientations should be explained by processes of an
accommodative disengagement from goals that no longer provide
sense and meaning.
• As the observations of Studies 2 and 3 suggest, emphasizing selftranscending aspects of authenticity, altruism, and spirituality in the
face of limited lifetime resources seems to be only a second
response that depends on accommodative dispositions and
• Accommodative processes cannot be fully understood as the result
of rational deliberation. Disengaging from blocked goals and
adopting new meaning perspectives should depend on automatic
cognitive-affective mechanisms that set the stage for processes of
adjustment and reorientation.
• Experiences of helplessness or loss of control prepare the cognitive
system for accommodation by neutralizing an attentional focus on
goals and commitments that are no longer relevant, or by enhancing
the accessibility of cognitions that support benefit finding and
positive reappraisal.
• Study 4 centered on the assumption that the devaluation of
instrumental orientations and a related shift toward self-transcending
values is a spontaneous process that is independent of intentional
decisions and conscious reflection.
• Following a mortality salience manipulation, the Implicit Association
Test used (IAT; Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998) to assess shifts in automatic
personal evaluations of the categories ‘‘value’’ and ‘‘success.’’
• The IAT is a response time measure that was specifically designed to
assess spontaneous evaluations that cannot easily be influenced by
controlled processes and strategies.
• Researchers hypothesized that increasing the salience of
cognitions related to death and dying would lead to a
spontaneous devaluation of concepts related to personal
success and to a related preference for value concepts that
transcend the personal horizon.
• Sample
• 86 undergraduates (69 female; average age 21.3 years) from the
University of Trier participated for partial course credit.
• Procedure
• Experiments were conducted in individual sessions that lasted 20
• Prior to the IAT procedure, participants completed the scale of
accommodative flexibility.
• In the mortality salience condition, participants in addition
completed the QDD.
• Participants were asked to work on a computer task that was
apperantly unrelated to the questionnaires.
• The computer task was a personalized version of an IAT with the
target categories ‘‘success’’ and ‘‘value,’’ and the attribute
categories ‘‘I like’’ and ‘‘I don’t like.’’
• Ten different adjectives were chosen to represent each of the
target categories (success: motivated, efficient, successful, famous,
persistent, etc.; value: honest, generous, just, idealistic, etc.).
• 8 nouns of positive and negative valence were selected to
represent the target categories ‘‘I like’’ (e.g., security, nature) and
‘‘I don’t like’’ (e.g., conflict, noise), respectively.
• Avoided using attribute stimuli with extremely positive or negative
valence, and participants were instructed that there were no right
or wrong categorizations with regard to the ‘‘I like’’ versus ‘‘I don’t
like’’ dichotomy, and that were only interested in their personal
evaluations. Therefore, no error feedback was given after
categorizations of attribute stimuli (Olson & Fazio, 2004).
• IAT effects were computed as the difference in mean response
latencies between the two combined blocks (I like/success vs. I
don’t like/value minus I like/value vs. I don’t like/success).
• Positive values on the IAT effect score reflect faster responses for
assignments of ‘‘I like’’/‘‘value’’ and ‘‘I don’t like’’/‘‘success’’ to the
same response, compared to the opposite response assignment.
• Put differently, positive values are supposed to indicate an
automatic preference for intrinsic-valuerational strivings.
• Response times for attributes did not enter into the computation of
effect scores because assignment of attribute stimuli to categories
was not fixed due to the personalized variant of the task.
• Response latencies were 103 ms faster for response assignments in
which the categories ‘‘value’’ and ‘‘I like’’ were assigned to the
same response key (M = 742 ms) than for the reversed assignment
(M = 846 ms), p < .001.
• This finding indicates that automatic personal evaluations of the
category ‘‘value’’ were generally more positive than for the
category ‘‘success.’’
• The main effect for experimental condition was significant,
p < .05, indicating that automatic preference for value over
success was more pronounced after mortality salience (M = 121
ms) than in the control group (M = 86 ms).
• The mortality salience manipulation led to a large increase in
relative preference for ‘‘value’’ among participants scoring high in
FGA, but no such increase was found for participants with low FGA
• The present results suggest that an increased awareness of life’s
finitude enhances an intrinsic, value-based evaluative focus; it is
particular theoretical interest that this accommodative effect
surfaces already on an automatic cognitive affective level which
does not involve rational deliberations or explicit reflections about
death and dying.
• In the previous study, the effect of mortality induction on
evaluative focus was moderated by accommodative flexibility.
• This conforms to general proposition that accommodative
dispositions enhance the disengagement from instrumental strivings
and the reorientation toward intrinsic, self-transcending goals
under fading life-time reserves.
• Hypothesized, the fading of life-time reserves and a growing
awareness of life’s finitude should deeply affect personal
perspectives of meaning and rationality:
• Individualistic-instrumental goals aiming at future gains should be
deemphasized as sources of meaning; this in turn should enhance a
reorientation toward self-transcendent strivings that do not
essentially presuppose expected utilities which could be
experienced by a future self.
• Disengagement from blocked goals and reorientation toward new
goals are an important resource of coping with losses; we have
argued that the above-mentioned shift in meaning perspectives is
basically rooted in accommodative processes (Brandtsta¨dter & Rothermund, 2002b;
Carver & Scheier, 2003).
• The present findings lend support to this assumption.
• Cross-sectional comparisons in the age range from 35 to 84 years
(Studies 1 and 2) suggest that personal importance of extrinsic
strivings related to power, achievement, and competence
decreases with advancing age, whereas an opposed trend
emerges for valuerational or intrinsic orientations of authenticity,
altruism, and spirituality.
• Similar changes in goals or existential attitudes occur when life’s
finitude is made salient by experimental procedures.
• Using an implicit measure of value preferences, Study 4 highlights
that the hypothesized change in evaluative orientations already
occurs at an automatic, preconscious level.
• These shifts in preferences basically reflect an accommodative
process by which goals or preferences are adjusted to changes in
action resources, and in particular to perceived losses in residual
• Consistent with this assumption, the shift from extrinsicinstrumental
to intrinsic-valuerational goals (the ‘‘Memento effect’’) was found
to be more pronounced among participants scoring high in a
measure of accommodative flexibility (Studies 3 and 4).
• Dampening effects of mortality salience manipulations on extrinsic,
instrumental strivings were more pronounced than enhancing effects
on intrinsic, valuerational orientations – which especially holds for
the experimental Studies 2 and 3.
• Considering the highly normative character of the valuerational
scale and the participants’ readiness to endorse the corresponding
items, it might also be doubted whether this measure is sensitive
enough to assess subtle changes in existential attitudes.
• The recognition of limitations – and in particular the experience of
narrowing life-time reserves – seems to activate accommodative
processes that lead to a downgrading of egocentric-individualistic
• When self-projections into a distant future become questionable,
expected future utilities lose weight in the person’s regulation of
• Decentering from instrumental goals that aim at future personal
benefits appears to be a developmental precondition for an
increased orientation toward self-transcending and ‘‘timeless’’
values, although it may not automatically and instantaneously bring
about such a more radical shift.
• Similar to the overcoming of an egocentric epistemological
perspective that has been described as a process of decentration
by Piaget, one could perhaps consider the shift in existential
orientations described above as a kind of final decentration:
• The experience of life’s limitations and finitude seems to enhance
disengagement from individualistic concerns and an orientation
toward ‘‘timeless’’ values that transcend the limits of personal
• According to Kohlberg (1979) such a final decentration – or, as he
put it, the attainment of a ‘‘cosmic perspective’’ – constitutes an
ultimate horizon of morality from which universal ethical principles
Ziliha Uluboy