he image of the “grumpy old man” may be more myththan reality. Recent research by Dr. Laura Carstensen,
a Stanford professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Life-span Development Laboratory,
suggests that emotional experience and satisfaction actually improve with age. Carstensen’s group has found that oldpeople are happier, more pleased with their relationships,less depressed and better able to manage their emotionallives than younger people.Data from Carstensen’s studies indicate a developmentalpattern in which a preference for negative material in youthshifts to a disproportionate preference for positive materialin later life – what she refers to as the “positivity effect”.This effect can be seen as an increase in the ratio of positiveto negative material remembered as an individual ages.Carstensen argues that this effect is driven by increasedmemory for and attention to negative information in youth,as well as increased memory for and attention to positiveinformation in old age. Her theory posits that this shift is dueto changing motivational goals throughout life, rather thanany type of cognitive decline. This line of research promptsthe development of methods for improving the lives of botholder and younger adults.
Aging and the “Positivity Efect”
Psychology professors Susan Charles and Mara Matherat the University of California, Irvine and University of California, Santa Cruz, respectively, teamed up withCarstensen to conduct a study in 2003 that had young,middle-aged and older adults watch a slide show consistingof negative, neutral and positive pictures. Following the
slide show, the adults were asked to recall as many picturesas possible. The researchers found that while younger adultsremember more pictures overall, the ratio of negative to
positive images remembered decreases with age. In other
words, a bias for remembering negative pictures in youthdisappears in old age, meaning that older adults are lesslikely to retain negative information than their youngercounterparts. These effects were observed in men and
women, African- and European-Americans, and people of
high and low socioeconomic status.The “positivity effect” also reveals itself outside of thelaboratory setting. Carstensen has found that older adultsare more likely than younger adults to recall their past
experiences optimistically. Older adults are also more likely
to emphasize the positive features of their choices and are
more satised with their decisions than are younger adults.For instance, when asked to choose between two different
models of cars, older adults spend a larger proportion of their time reviewing positive features of the cars, whereas younger adults are likely to focus equally on both positiveand negative features.
Explaining the Preerence or the Positive: The Role o Motivation and Emotion Regulation
Because physical and cognitive decline is inevitable,
the idea that subjective well-being can be enhanced in old
age is hard to fathom. Carstensen refers to this apparentcontradiction as the “paradox of aging”.
To explain this counter intuitive nding, the “positivity
effect” may be another result of declining cognitive ability.
A look at how and whyaging may beneft emotionalexperience
Older adults are less likely toretain negative information thantheir younger counterparts.
By Rachel Nass
Photo by Marcelo Mokrejs