TitlePossible Selves Theory
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsTurner, S, Hooker, K
Book TitleEncyclopedia of Gerontology and Population Aging
Pagination1 - 6
PublisherSpringer International Publishing
ISBN Number978-3-319-69892-2

A person’s possible self can answer the question “Who do you see yourself becoming?” Young and emerging adults are often the target audience for such a question, and much work on possible selves focuses on them. At that age, developmental tasks include identity work, and young people are often consumed with thoughts of what they want to accomplish in their academic, career, social, and family lives. It makes sense that those who are feeling pressure to distinguish themselves and carve out their own niche are a target for possible selves research. Skip forward several decades, though, and you will find that older adults, too, think about who they may become and what they may experience in their future (Hooker 1992, 1999). People in later life are also in a constant process of becoming, challenging the ageist assumptions and stereotypes that old age is a time of stagnation (Bauer and Park 2010). Neugarten (1964) noted that “as individuals age they become increasingly like themselves” (p. 198). So, “Who do you see yourself becoming?” is a viable and important question for old adults.

Markus and Nurius (1986) first coined the term “possible selves” to label the conceptualizations people have about “what is possible for [them] to think, to feel, or to experience” in the future (p. 960). Possible selves researchers have delineated 18 possible selves categories: personal, physical, abilities/education, lifestyle, family, relationships, occupation, material, success, social responsibility, leisure, health, independence/dependence, death, threats, caregiving, cognitive, and bereavement (Waid and Frazier 2003). Possible selves could be hoped-for (e.g., a grandparent) or feared (e.g., a widow).

Possible selves bridge cognition with motivation and motivation with behavior (Markus and Nurius 1986). As such, researchers have explored how people conceptualize possible selves, as well as how they orchestrate the achievement or avoidance of those selves.