Communication Across the Life Span

Julie Yingling. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publications. 2009.

Humans have considered and written about their time-bound nature since they had the leisure to do so. And while the life course probably has not changed all that much, the way we understand it has. Life span communication theory should describe, explain, and predict the modifications that occur to human communication and thus to its outcomes over the course of a life span. This is a tall order, but it goes to the heart of what makes communication so interesting: It is what makes us human, what makes us capable of self-change, and what creates our social worlds. What follows is a brief history of life span scholarship and how it informs the specialty of life span communication, a summary of the challenges to studying life span changes, examples of communication phenomena that have been tested for age differences, and the current status of life span communication as a theory.


Scholars of sociology and cognitive psychology were the first to formally study the life progression of human behavior. Sociologists prefer the term life course to life span and examine the effects on social policy of changing demographics. Psychologists are more interested in individual cognitive changes across the life span. Some, such as Laura Berk, who did much of the research on the developmental function of private speech, may refer to their specialty as human development. Particularly in psychology, life span work arose from the study of early childhood development. In the 1920s, Jean Piaget systematically studied the cognitive development of very young children and assumed that development ended with the teen years. But life continues.

The premise of any life span approach to human behavior is that the potential for human development extends across the life span. In the communication discipline, the key factor in human development is spoken symbolic communication, which makes possible self-directed change.

In 1989 Jon F. Nussbaum, inspired by the founding work of other social scientists, was the first communication scholar to formally articulate a life span perspective. His view is that a life span perspective can subsume all other communication theories under its umbrella. However, as both Nussbaum and Nikolas Coupland, a sociolinguist, pointed out a few years later, the early work in communication development did not conceptualize language and interaction as constitutive of life span experiences, meaning that people come to understand such experiences in terms of how they actually communicate about these experiences. And this is an important distinction for communication theorists to make. Although sociolinguists and psycholinguists do acknowledge the constitutive nature of language, communication theorists are best positioned to explain the link from spoken symbolic interaction to individual identity and distinctively human experience. However, the empirical research necessary to support this link rarely appears in the communication literature. One reason for this gap is that life span methodologies are complicated and take time to execute well. Perhaps a more important reason is the relative newness of life span study and the resulting dearth of graduate-level coursework in life span theory and methods.

Methodological Concerns

Sophisticated methods for studying life span changes arose from the limitations found in existing research designs. In 1988, Paul Baltes, Hayne Reese, and John Nesselroade wrote the book, literally, on research methods for life span developmental psychology. Communication studies of life span change using the simplest appropriate sampling designs—cross-sectional and longitudinal—have appeared in the past decade or two.

Cross-sectional has been the most frequently employed design because the researcher collects data from different age groups at one point in time, thereby avoiding the problems involved in following subjects over many years. The remaining difficulty with gathering data from subjects of different ages is that the samples may not be comparable—in fact, probably are not. Confounding cohort influences may make for a difference between groups; 5-year-olds in 1973 may have had different experiences than 10-year-olds did in the same year. If you ask a set of siblings about that year, you will receive very different answers that are not attributable just to age but to other influences: parenting, teaching practices, access to world events, and so forth. Another source of variation in cross-sectional design is the measurement itself. With very young children, some measures, such as written surveys, are not feasible. And with interviews or observations, the effect of the researcher’s attention alone may have unwanted effects. Julie Yingling has interviewed children in treatment for cancer who ranged from age 3 to age 17. Even though the same set of questions was asked of each child, the answers received were not comparable across age groups. The very young children just enjoyed the talking and playing; the teens were serious and thoughtful in their responses. So, results were descriptive but not generalizable, or true for all children in treatment. Cross-sectional designs are quick but not always productive of useful developmental data.

Longitudinal designs, which follow the same person or relationship over time and repeated observations, may seem ideal for examining developmental processes, but they bring different problems. Some measurements (e.g., surveys) are prone to practice effects. If we study the same participants over several months or even years, and use the same survey measure, the participants will become accustomed to it and may remember past responses rather than respond anew. One solution is to use observational measures instead of subject-controlled measures, in which the answers are controlled by the subjects who provide them. Yet another source of variance may be time of testing or observation. If the researcher’s plan is to measure at the same time of day over several weeks, months, or years, the time of day itself could be producing an effect (8:00 a.m. can be very different experientially from 8:00 at night). The more severe problems include attrition (no researcher wants to end a longitudinal study with only half of the original subjects), the demands of time (often counted in years) that ignore the tenure clock, and the lack of flexibility to refine study procedures and theory as the field develops past the study. Nonetheless, longitudinal designs are appealing in their capacity to show people as they change. One example of their allure was the very popular British ITV television series that began in 1964 as “Seven Up” and documented a group of 7-year-olds every 7 years, ending with “Forty-Nine Up.” Charming and interesting as it was, it could not claim to be solid scholarship about development, although it raised intriguing questions about culture and aging.

Even before life span research began, those who studied child development proposed more-sophisticated designs created to eliminate the disadvantages of both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. In 1953, Richard Q. Bell suggested alternate sampling to assess differences across sets of cohorts matched on chronological age. A decade later, K. Warner Schaie went further by proposing a general developmental model that involves three sequential designs, each of which varies two factors of the three he views as critical to behavioral performance: chronological age, birth cohort, and time of measurement. These three designs (cross-sequential, cohort sequential, and time sequential) require successions of studies, like so: Time 1 observation: ages 10, 15, 20; Time 2 observation (5 years past Time 1): ages 10 (new group), 15 (the original 10s from Time 1), 20 (the original 15s), and so on. The general developmental model controls for many sources of error and can generate solid descriptive data.

Beyond method and design, complex statistical analyses that lend themselves to the study of change have appeared more recently. Two applicable to life span communication data are linear sequential modeling and complexity theory (also called chaos theory or the new science). Rather than test mean differences, sequential modeling can solve more complex problems involving analysis of variance and covariance matrices, thus moving beyond simple description to the possibility of prediction.

Complexity theory originally was developed by physicists and biologists to explain nonlinear dynamics in living organisms, and then it excited interest in the social sciences. The biologists were inspired by Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s 1968 general systems theory. As with systems theory, complexity models are meant to describe the nonlinear and dynamic nature of change and the nature of mutual influence among interacting levels of systems. Complexity theory has been used to examine weather patterns, traffic flow, tipping points, and abuse dynamics in families. However, the nonlinear mathematics involved in modeling these processes are not easily accessible or available to communication scholars, and not likely to be in the near future. At this time, a communication scholar interested in developmental issues must find colleagues in other social sciences to assist in shoring up communication studies’ developmental foundations. Those foundations now consist of a few theoretical perspectives and a growing body of descriptive studies.

Developmental Research in Communication

Concepts that recur in life span communication include those that define variables borrowed from psychology: attachment, accommodation, personality, identity, private speech, and social support, and those that are primarily communication variables: persuasiveness, cognitive complexity, conflict management, comforting, dialectical tensions, and turning points.

Regardless of the phenomenon studied, current life span communication practitioners have, for the most part, studied either children’s communication or late-life communication rather than developmental changes in communication across the full range of the life span. Only very recently have communication researchers begun to examine systematically points in the human life span other than the first or last.

Scholars examining early development have favored systems approaches. In 1993, Laura Stafford and Cherie Bayer plotted the existing research on parent-child interaction by the direction of influence used to explain change: unidirectional, bidirectional, and systems process (or multidirectional), demonstrating the superiority of systems models for examining patterns of interaction and mutual influence. Four years later, Beth Haslett and Wendy Samter acknowledged systems theory as useful to studying communication and language acquisition, while emphasizing four structural layers critical to a developmental perspective of children’s communication: sound, meaning, grammar, and discourse. Psycholinguists would use the terms phonetics, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics for those concepts. Regardless of terminology, any scholar of development would have to give some consideration to how these structures are acquired and how they interact in infancy and early childhood. Thus systems theory has been the prevailing choice of those studying early development for its ability to demonstrate mutual influence of communication structures, as well as interactional partners.

On the other end of the spectrum, those examining aging have chosen to test very specific communication theories across age groups to challenge the implicit assumption that studying communication practices in college-age subjects produces reliable explanations. Most communication theories are tested first in college populations, and many go no further. But at least two theories in common usage have been tested across age groups: attachment theory, borrowed from developmental psychology, and accommodation theory, which originated in sociopsychology.

Attachment theory emerged from the 1991 observation by John Bowlby and Mary D. Slater Ainsworth that parent-child interaction affects personality development. Explanations drawn from ethological research support the view that attachment serves a protective function for humans as much as it does for young birds and monkeys. For Ainsworth and Bowlby, the crux of the matter was that early caregiver interaction leads to either security or insecurity; that in turn lays the foundation for the child’s personality development and later attachments. With the repetition of a given response to caregivers over time, the child forms one of four working models of self and others, creating a more or less enduring attachment style by adulthood: secure (positive models of self and others), dismissive (positive self model, negative other model), preoccupied (negative self model, positive other model), and fearful (negative models of self and others).

Although it is not featured in early versions of the theory, Laura Guerrero recently noted that communication is a cause of attachment style; the caregiver clearly sets the stage for the infant to learn interaction skills. The nature of the dynamic between them will affect the child’s attachments, perhaps for a lifetime. Attachment styles have been considered fairly stable, given a strong early infant-caregiver bond and subsequent reinforcement of that attachment—which is highly likely given that the developing child will be most comfortable participating in the same dynamic over and over. However, critical life events such as death or divorce can precipitate change in attachment style. Not only is communication a cause of attachment style, it can also be a consequence or mediator of style and can certainly reinforce or modify style. Several studies have shown that, in relationships, partners’ attachment styles interact to predict communication patterns. Guerrero suggests that the reverse could be true: By developing more socially skilled styles of communication, people could improve their models of self and others, thus modifying their attachment style toward the secure. Attachment theorists have predicted relational satisfaction from style for some time, but this approach can be used much more widely to examine all sorts of influences between communication and working models for self and other as they function and change throughout the life span.

Accommodation theory was developed in 1975 by Howard Giles and Peter Powesland to explain how communication behaviors change depending on whom our interaction partner happens to be. It has since been modified to a communication accommodation theory that explains the process by which we can both reduce and magnify communicative differences between people. Convergence toward another by approximating the other’s communicative behavior enhances similarities and reduces uncertainty. For example, adopting a conversational partner’s accent or vocabulary can lead the partner to perceive the accommodating speaker as more similar to the partner and perhaps as more likable. Divergence, on the other hand, can be triggered by dislike of another, by wanting to appear as different as possible from the other. However, accommodation theory is more complex than simply that. Researchers have found that context and perception affect results, thus allowing for the complexity of development. Accommodation theory has proven useful for the study of relational development and intergenerational communication. Mary Lee Hummert’s work from the 1990s on suggests that as we age, we develop more sophisticated stereotypes of aging. That is, older adults have more positive views of aging than do younger adults. The use of communication accommodation theory contributes to what we know about life span changes in communication and promises to continue to do so.

Life Span Communication as a Theory

Although there have been studies that examine (a) intergenerational differences, (b) links between self- and other-perceptions and communication behavior, and (c) changes with increasing age, there have been precious few to tackle the developmental questions of life span change in communication from an overall theoretical perspective. Systems theory seems appropriate but is so general as to explain very little about change until all the subsystems and linkages have been first described. One useful attempt to flesh out systems theory is Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, first proposed in 1977, which has been used to study the influences of school and home subsystems on early childhood communication but has yet to be used extensively for life span studies.

Jon F. Nussbaum and his colleagues Loretta Pecchioni and Kevin Wright treat the study of the communication life span as an umbrella theory under which all communication theories can fit. Their perspective, set forth in 2005, uses broad assumptions: (a) It is the nature of human communication to foster development, (b) life span communication involves multiple levels of knowledge, (c) change can be both quantitative and qualitative, and (d) unique methods are required to capture communication change. These assumptions are nearly axiomatic; few who study development or communication would argue against them. The theory has served well to pull together disparate communication research programs for a broader view of how communication changes across the life span.

In 2004, Julie Yingling also set out a series of assumptions to support a relational-dialogical perspective of communication development. In her view, human communication development is a dialectical process that first relies on physiological endowments, then builds symbolically and interactively across the life span. Stated briefly, her assumptions include the following: (a) The human mind is constructed with boundary experiences, or symbolic interactions with others; (b) these are internalized to create an identity that may fluctuate as communication experience fluctuates; and (c) internalizations of experience occur in cycles, the peaks and valleys of which may be viewed as turning points. This perspective relies heavily on the theory of relational dialectics, in which Leslie Baxter and her colleagues describe the process of making meaning between partners from the interplay of competing discourses. The fact that making meaning, a distinctively human symbolic activity, is both diachronic (occurs over time) and synchronic (in one moment in time) gives a clue to the developmental effects of meaning making. As we make meanings, we create and modify identity and social reality. In the process, we learn how to view self, how to view others, and how to view self with others. Such a dialectical process is inherently developmental and therefore fitting for the study of life span communication.

Both of the articulated perspectives of life span communication provide a starting point for filling in the blanks in our understanding of how, when, and why shifts in communication, identity, and social meaning occur in the human life span. Both theorists frame the existing communication literature to describe an overview of life span changes in communication.