Susanne Scheibe

This is a photo of Susanne Scheibe.University of Groningen, The Netherlands

What does your research focus on?

I study how emotional experience and emotion regulation change as people age, and how such changes affect important realms of life, such as work life. When looking at the many (mostly negative) changes that accompany aging, emotions clearly stand out. Emotional experience becomes more positive and more stable with age at least until people reach their 70s and 80s. This is actually surprising given that a large part of emotion regulation requires cognitive control, which declines more than other competencies with age. I am trying to understand the role of motivational and competence-related factors for the positive lifespan trajectory of emotion. For example, in one study we showed that older adults can be more efficient in regulating emotions than younger adults, as indicated by smaller cognitive costs. In my newest work, I started to investigate how emotional aging can support older adults’ well-being and performance in work contexts.

What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?

I was always fascinated by the way in which emotions shape our experience and behavior. Emotions make stimuli and experiences meaningful and relevant. When I started my PhD in a group of lifespan researchers around Paul Baltes at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, I had the opportunity to study emotion from a lifespan developmental perspective. I find it inspiring to think of something positive that happens to us as we age. Going forward, I am excited by the possibility that we could actually use the emotional domain to compensate for areas of decline with age, in order to enhance older adults’ decision-making, motivation and learning.

Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?

My first important mentor was Mike Bagby from the University of Toronto, with whom I worked during an academic exchange when I was still an undergrad at Humboldt-University Berlin. Mike introduced me to the world of psychological science and was the first who made me believe in my ability to become a researcher myself. For my PhD, I was extremely fortunate to join Paul Baltes and his group of excellent researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. The institute was an extraordinary place — strong in theory, strong in methods, well-equipped, and a favorite meeting place for psychological scientists from across the world. From my PhD mentors Paul Baltes and Alexandra Freund I learned countless lessons about conducting research and managing it. I also became part of a strong academic network that over the years allowed me to do research overseas. Pursuing postdoctoral work with Fredda Blanchard-Fields and Laura Carstensen, two wonderful scientists and role models, I learned that it is possible to study topics that really matter to the lives of people with scientific rigor and also how to write them up beautifully.

To what do you attribute your success in the science?

Whatever success I had, I attribute to excellent training, strong mentoring relationships, and great colleagues who kept me thinking and challenge myself. I love collaborative work. I have been told that I am good at listening (non-defensively) to comments and working with them. I am trying to see failures as a learning experience. And I have a husband who is willing to move with me across the globe so that I can have it all, both a career and family.

What’s your future research agenda?

Becoming (a bit) older myself, I find it increasingly interesting to consider the practical implications of emotional aging, such as in work life. I believe that emotional competence is a strength of older workers that has not been sufficiently appreciated. Some key questions my students and I have begun to address include: Does older adults’ increased emotional competence benefit them in the workplace, so that they can maintain performance despite cognitive decline? Can we develop emotion-focused approaches to enhance older workers’ learning, productivity, and occupational well-being? How can we motivate people to postpone retirement? I think finding answers to these types of questions will be important as we come to terms with a rapidly aging workforce across the Western world.

Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?

Working as a researcher means that work never stops. Science is very rewarding but also very demanding. It often feels like one should run yet another study, write yet another paper or grant, and work through the next vacation. It is easy to lose the balance between work and life along the way. So, do work hard but do not forget life. Do have kids and cultivate your family and friendships. Graduate school is just the beginning of a long work life and thus, it seems important to develop a “sustainable” pace. With careers likely extending further into old age, we may have more time than we think.

Go abroad! Join multiple labs, seek diverse experiences. Every place will open your eyes to something different, which will broaden your way of thinking, of doing research, and of managing a lab. Moreover, it allows you to develop collaborations and friendships around the world.

What publication are you most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?

Scheibe, S. & Carstensen, L. L. (2010). Emotional aging: Recent findings and future trends. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 65(B), 135-144.

This paper, which is part of the 65th anniversary series of the JGPS, gave me the opportunity to lay out systematically my view on emotional aging, and it was fun to speculate (without being constrained by the reality of data) on the future directions that the field and my own research might take.

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