Developmental Barriers and the Benefits of Disengagement
This paper analyzes adaptive behavior of individuals who face developmental barriers, i.e., a situation with seriously limited opportunities for primary control or problem-oriented coping. It focuses on coping with demands of social change in the domains of work and family when opportunity structures are limited. Heckhausen's life-span theory of control suggests that if opportunities for primary control are unfavorable, the most adaptive way of coping is to switch to compensatory secondary control strategies of self-protection and disengagement. These strategies are supposed to prevent individuals from repeated experiences of failure and to protect their motivational and emotional resources. It was thus hypothesized that under the condition of a developmental barrier self-protection and disengagement are positively correlated with general and domain-specific measures of satisfaction with life. Furthermore, it was explored whether optimism and involvement in an alternative life domain can promote self-protective strategies and ease disengagement from unattainable demands. These research questions were tested on a sample of N = 806 subjects who reported being particularly confronted with demands of social change. Participants originated from 82 regional units in Western and Eastern Germany for which objective indicators of opportunity structures related to work and family life were collected. Statistical analyses were performed by testing cross-level interactions in mixed-effects models. Results showed positive associations between self-protection or disengagement and measures of satisfaction with life if developmental barriers were high. A sense of optimism and the involvement in an alternative life domain promoted adaptive control strategies and amplified their positive associations with life satisfaction with. These findings support the the life-span theory of control and imply that under certain circumstances giving up may be more adaptive than persistence.