Ageing and the Positivity Effect

Smiling Couple

[Photo by Mike Fischer]

Cognitive decline with age is not the whole story: recent research is suggesting older adults are more likely to notice positive emotional stimuli like happy faces in addition to experiencing less anger and regulating emotions more effectively.

As we get older lots of depressing things start happening to our brains. We can’t simultaneously manipulate as many items as we once could. We find it more difficult to retrieve memories. Our attention degrades, and so on. Essentially our brains are slowing down, just like the rest of our bodies. But, in this discouraging picture, there is one ray of hope: our emotions.

Noticing a happy face

A series of studies carried out by Professor Laura Carstensen from Stanford University and colleagues, has revealed that we may actually preserve our ability to process emotions as we get older. But this is not just the preservation of all emotion processing, rather it may just be positive emotions. This has led them to propose a ‘positivity effect’ – the idea that as we get older we tend to process positive emotions better than negative.

The evidence for this claim comes from cognitive psychology. A good example is a study carried out by Mather and Carstensen (2003) which involved the use of the ‘dot-probe paradigm’. This name may sound terribly complicated (or perhaps even unnecessarily invasive!) but it’s actually deceptively simple.

You sit in front of a computer on which a pair of human faces are shown for 1 second – one of these faces is neutral and the other is either happy or sad. After the faces disappear a small grey dot is shown in the place of just one of the two faces. Your task is simply to identify behind which face the dot has appeared. The experimenters then measure your reaction time.

If you are randomly attending to the faces – sometimes looking at the positive, sometimes the negative and sometimes the neutral – then there should be no difference in your average reaction time to different faces.

And indeed that’s what Mather and Carstensen found for younger adults. On average the chances were about even as to which face they were looking at, as measured by reaction times.

Accentuate the positive

But for older adults there was a different pattern of responses. According to the reaction times, older adults were more likely to be looking at the positive face over the negative face, the positive over the neutral and the neutral over the negative. In other words, older adults were more likely to be looking at the happier of the two faces.

This experiment only examines attention but there are also similar findings for other areas of brain function. Another experiment compared the visual working memory of older and younger adults. Sure enough, the older adults were better than the younger at processing positive emotional stimuli.

While these experiments are all very well, they’re a little abstract. Photos of faces and dots appearing – does this translate to any advantage for older people in reality?

Real world problem solving

Dr Fredda Blanchard-Fields at the Georgia Institute of Technology has looked at how older adults fare in everyday problem solving (Blanchard-Fields, Stein & Watson, 2004). Her research helps answer the question of whether these advantages in emotion processing confer any practical benefits for older adults over younger adults.

In a series of studies Blanchard-Fields and colleagues have examined how people of different ages approach practical everyday problems. In one study, people ranging in age from 15 to 84 were asked to think of a problem they had faced in the past and how they had tried to solve it.

The results of this analysis suggested older adults may be better at solving problems of a social nature. In addition, older adults were likely to use more diverse strategies and understand more clearly when to do something, when to leave well alone or what combination of these was most effective.

The question remains, though, of specifically how the positivity effect might benefit older adults in everyday situations. After all, these advantages in problem solving could simply be the result of experience.

Benefits of age

In two more study Blanchard-Fields and colleagues again asked people of different ages to think about interpersonal problems and how they had regulated their emotions in these situations. These interviews were then coded for the specific types of emotions experienced in the problem situations.

They found that older people were more likely to use passive rather than active strategies for regulating their emotions. Passive strategies include approaches such as suppressing emotions, or intentionally redirecting thoughts. Active strategies include expressing the emotion or seeking help from others.

Older adults were also less likely to report feeling angry. The authors argue this might help explain why they were less frequently required to use active strategies to regulate emotions.

With age comes wisdom

The message coming from this research is that older adults are:

  • More likely to attend to and remember positive emotional stimuli.
  • Less likely to experience anger.
  • More likely to use diverse strategies to solve interpersonal problems.
  • More likely to understand when to use particular problem-solving strategies.

These differences might not just be from accumulated experience, but rather result from changes in the way emotions are processed. While simple cognitive processing measures such as those of memory and attention might decline with age, it seems that everyday problem solving does not.

References

Blanchard-Fields, F., Stein, R., & Watson, T.L. (2004). Age Differences in Emotion-Regulation Strategies in Handling Everyday Problems. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 59(6), 261-269.

Mather, M., & Carstensen, L.L. (2003). Aging and attentional biases for emotional faces. Psychological Science, 14, 409-415.

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 18 July 2007

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