Feature

When it comes to the elderly, the writers of "The Simpsons" pull no punches. Bart Simpson's grandfather and his cohort of elderly nursing-home residents are pathetic figures, often confused, lonely, depressed and mistreated.

That image, however exaggerated, is reflective of a broader cultural idea of old age as a time of mental and physical decline, social isolation and emotional difficulty. But it doesn't jive with what psychologists are learning about how real elderly people--not cartoon characters--feel about their lives.

Two new studies in this month's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General and Emotion, both published by APA, add to the growing body of work suggesting that, whatever the problems of old age may be, an increase in negative emotions isn't necessarily among them.

As we age, the studies suggest, negative memories become increasingly rare and the physiological responses they elicit become weaker and weaker.

Rose-colored memories

Laura Carstensen, PhD, a psychologist at Stanford University, argues that old age is, for many people, a relatively happy time of life. Her theory of "socioemotional selectivity" suggests that, as the perceived future shortens, people focus more and more of their attention and energy on emotional goals, such as maintaining satisfying interpersonal relations, and less and less on knowledge-related goals, such as getting an education. The result is that positive emotions become a high priority.

Carstensen and her colleagues have conducted a number of studies whose results support the theory. In a 1994 Psychology and Aging (Vol. 9, No. 2) article, for instance, Carstensen and her then-student Susan Turk Charles, PhD--now a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine--found that older people tended to remember more of the emotional content of short excerpts from novels, whereas younger people tended to remember more nonemotional content. Many other studies using a variety of experimental paradigms have found similar results.

But is focusing on emotion really such a good thing? After all, it is a short step from focusing on emotions to ruminating on them, and research has shown that people who ruminate have an increased chance of becoming depressed, says Charles.

To address this question, Charles, Carstensen and their colleague Mara Mather, PhD, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, decided to look not just at the amount, but also at the kind of emotional information that younger and older people remember. Their study is published in this month's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Vol. 132, No. 2).

The results of the study--which used photographs with negative, positive or neutral emotional content instead of narratives--indicated a major difference between age groups. Whereas younger participants tended to recall positive and negative images in equal measure, older participants had a strong bias toward recalling positive images. Somewhere in the process of encoding, consolidation and recall, older adults appeared to be letting negative images and emotions fall by the wayside.

In a second experiment in the same study, Charles and her colleagues found that younger and older people looked at the images for the same amounts of time, which rules out a simple attentional bias as an explanation for their finding. But it remains possible that more subtle differences in attention between younger and older people, which have been found in other studies, were at work.

"The more we look at emotion and aging, the more we see it's really not about changes in the positive emotions," says Charles. Instead, it's the negative emotions that gradually decrease in importance and impact across the life span, she says.

The bias appears to extend beyond laboratory experiments to affect the way people think about their own life stories. Quinn Kennedy, PhD, a researcher at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, recently gave a questionnaire to a group of nuns who had first been studied by Carstensen in 1987. Kennedy found that the oldest nuns, 79-102 years old, were more likely to give their past a positive gloss than were the youngest nuns, 47-65 years old.

Even more interestingly, the youngest nuns in Kennedy's study became more positive when they were asked to focus on their emotions, and the oldest became more negative when they were asked to focus on accuracy. The results suggest that phenomena documented in the Charles team's study, and others like it--that is, that old age brings an increased focus on emotions and a positive memory bias--are as relevant in the field as they are in the lab. Kennedy's study is in press at Psychological Science.

Other factors

An overarching question in this research is whether the differences between younger and older people are a sign of shifting goals, as Carstensen posits, or whether they are a side effect of other age-related changes.

Wayne State University psychologist Gisela Labouvie-Vief, PhD, is skeptical that people necessarily become skilled, motivated emotion regulators as they approach the end of life. Instead, she says, that may be true of only a portion of the population. She also points to other factors--such as pressures to conform to societal expectations and declines in cognitive ability--that could be shaping emotions over the life span.

In a study in this month's Emotion (Vol. 3, No. 1), Labouvie-Vief and her colleagues looked at gender differences in cardiac reactivity in people 15-88 years old. Using autobiographical memories to induce anger, fear, sadness and happiness, they found that cardiac reactivity declined with age, especially for negative emotions such as anger.

The key finding, however--the one that calls into question any simplistic view of the relationship between aging and emotion--was that there were significant gender differences in the rate of decline.

Women appeared to drive much of the overall decline, and they did so not because older women were less reactive than older men, but because younger women were unusually reactive. For anger, young women's increase in beats-per-minute was more than twice that of young men's.

Labouvie-Vief speculates that this may be the result of intense pressures to internalize anger that affect young women. "Anger is an emotion that has a lot of sanctions for expressing it," she says. "So if we internalize, it's particularly likely that we internalize anger."

Cognitive decline may also play a role in older people's bias toward positive emotion, says Labouvie-Vief. As the end of life approaches, she suggests, we simplify our thinking and reduce our engagement with the world in order to avoid situations in which our reduced cognitive abilities might lead to painful consequences. There is also evidence that negative emotions are harder to process than are positive emotions, so cognitive decline could be a direct cause of the decrease in negative emotion with aging, she says.

Carstensen counters that there is solid evidence that older people are less likely to suffer from emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety, that they're better at controlling their emotions and that they experience a wider and more complex range of emotions than younger people.

"There's a lot of evidence suggesting that older people are doing very well," says Carstensen. "Our challenge is to figure out what they're doing and how they're doing it."

Further Reading

  • Charles, S.T., Mather, M., & Carstensen, L.L. (2003). Aging and emotional memory: The forgettable nature of negative images for older adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 132(2).

  • Labouvie-Vief, G., Lumley, M.A., Jain, E., & Heinze, H. (2003). Age and gender differences in cardiac reactivity and subjective emotion responses to emotional autobiographical memories. Emotion, 3(1).