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The Gain-Loss Dynamic in Lifespan Development: Implications for Change in Self and Personality During Old and Very Old Age

  • Jacqui Smith
Chapter

Abstract

This chapter explores the utility of the gain-loss proposition of lifespan psychology (P. Bakes, 1987) as an explanatory heuristic for change in various aspects of self and personality in adulthold and old age. Underlying the gain-loss proposition is the suggestion that developmental change is not only one of growth (gain) but also always involves some loss of functional efficacy. Although widely accepted as a useful metalevel developmental concept, empirical work specifically devised to examine the gain-loss dynamic is less prevalent. Most studies of self and personality functioning in adulthood and old age focus on a single dimension of change (gain, maintenance, or loss). The Baltes proposition, however, points to the advantages of taking a broad systemic approach whereby the dialectics among dimensions of gain, maintenance, and loss are considered. The final section of this chapter focuses on such a systemic approach. It examines the idea that the transition from the third to the fourth age is characterized by the breakdown of systems that contribute to a positive ratio of gain over loss.

Are aspects of self-related and personality functioning expected to change in late adulthood and very old age? If so, how might we best characterize the nature of age-related changes in these life phases: Do they represent growth or decline, gains or losses? Furthermore, what criteria and standards could be used for this judgment?

P. Baltes (1987) proposed that rather than describing development as unidimen-sional, it is best considered as involving both gains and losses. Underlying his gain-loss proposition was the suggestion that developmental change at all ages entails elements of gain (growth) and elements of loss. As he argued in 1987 (p. 613), the process of human development from childhood to old age is considered to be an age-related change in adaptive capacity in which there is a “joint occurrence of growth (gains) and decline (losses).” Ontogenetic development, according to him, should be viewed not as a monolithic process of progression and growth but as an ongoing, changing, and interacting system of gains and losses in adaptive capacity. Later publications (e.g., P. Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 1998, p. 1043) advanced the more radical view that there is “no gain in development without loss, and no loss without gain.” This view was based on the assumption that development always involves selection and therefore a tradeoff between alternative pathways and success-failure constellations. This later proposal, however, opens up many questions not only about the definition of gains and losses in a developmental context but also, as discussed below, about possible causal and reciprocal contingent relationships between gains and losses, together with their antecedents, correlates, and consequences.

The application of propositions about gains and losses appears on first glance to be especially useful for models of self-related and personality functioning (for application to cognitive functioning, see Salthouse, this volume; Wellman, this volume). In part, this is because the propositions refer to processes of adaptation and to adaptive capacity, topics that are at the core of self and personality concepts. Many authors, indeed, have proposed, adapted, or integrated ideas about gains and loss into their models of the self in adulthood and old age (e.g., Brandtstädter & Wentura, 1995; Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999; Higgins, 1997; Schulz & Heckhausen, 1996; Staudinger & Pasupathi, 2000).

In contrast, one might question whether the Baltes gain-loss proposals apply well to research on old age. Historically, the period of old age has been associated primarily with functional decline and loss. To address potential questioners on this front, P. Baltes (1997) added three supplementary concepts to his propositions about the dynamics of gain and loss that apply especially to this life phase. First, the observation that, with regard to the ratio of gains to losses, successful aging involves the relative maximization of gains and minimization of losses. The gains observed in late life may not be as great (in absolute terms) or as significant as those in early life, but relative to the normative functional profile of an older adult, instances of gain are important. Second, he proposed that in old age there is a shift in the relative allocation of resources associated with development. This shift is away from functions associated with growth and instead toward those associated with maintenance (that is, sustaining or recovering normal levels of functioning in the face of a new contextual challenge or a loss in potential) and the regulation of loss when maintenance or recovery is no longer possible (P. Baltes, 1997; see also Featherman, Smith, & Peterson, 1990; Staudinger, Marsiske, & Baltes, 1995). Finally, P. Baltes (1997) offered a reason why the general tenets of his gain-loss propositions may have less predictive power in very old age. Findings that in old age losses begin to outnumber gains, he suggested, indicate the apparent breakdown of systems that contribute to the positive ratio of gains over losses. Baltes argued that this occurs because the architectural design of human development is by definition “incomplete.”

These three supplementary proposals from P. Baltes (1987, 1997; P. Baltes et al., 1998) about the nature of functioning and change in old age, together with earlier proposals that positive characteristics like wisdom and a sense of personal integrity might be achieved in old age (see also Birren, 1980; Erikson, Erikson, & Kivnick, 1989), represented exceptions to the traditional primarily negative loss-based focus on old age and spurred much research in the 1990s. There are still many open questions, however, regarding the potential for areas of growth (and indeed maintenance of functioning) in late adulthood and about the relative balance of gains and losses during very old age. Indeed, there has been surprisingly little empirical work specifically devised to examine ideas about a gain-loss dynamic. Most studies of self and personality functioning in adulthood and old age, for example, focus on a single outcome variable and interpret this outcome as indicative of either gain, maintenance, or loss. The Baltes propositions, however, point to the advantages of taking a broad systemic approach whereby the dialectics and interdependencies among multiple outcomes and multiple directions of change are considered. To date there is also little research on the idea that a shift occurs in late adulthood in the allocation of developmental resources. When this shift occurs on a systemic versus domain-specific level and what factors modify this proposed qualitative change in the organization of development represent open research questions that will advance the field.

This chapter explores the utility of the P. Baltes (1987, 1997) gain-loss propositions as an explanatory heuristic for interpreting findings about functioning and change in various aspects of self and personality during old and very old age. To begin, I briefly review concepts and metaphors of gain and loss and then discuss associated definitional and theoretical issues in relation to self-related and personality functioning in late adulthood. The final section of the chapter focuses on findings about very old age from the Berlin Aging Study (BASE; P. Baltes & Mayer, 1999). The central question addressed here is whether the fourth age is a period of life in which the potential for gain (growth) is limited to such an extent that loss prevails. Work in the Berlin Aging Study suggests that an overall negative gain-loss balance may in fact be a defining characteristic of transition to the fourth age (e.g., Smith & P. Baltes, 1997). These findings are in accord with Baltes’s proposals about the negative consequences of the incomplete architecture of ontogeny for development at the end of life.

Keywords

Life Satisfaction Positive Affect Adaptive Capacity Successful Aging Control Belief 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Authors and Affiliations

  • Jacqui Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.Max Planck Institute for Human DevelopmentBerlinGermany

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