Science Brief

Looking on the bright side across adulthood

Eye tracking reveals changes in emotion regulation with age.

By Derek M. Isaacowitz

PSA-2012-01-isaacowitzDerek M. Isaacowitz is Associate Professor of Psychology, member of the Affective Science Institute, and director of the Lifespan Emotional Development Lab (LEDlab) at Northeastern University. He was an undergraduate at Stanford and earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in 2001. His research on attention–emotion links across adulthood is funded by the National Institute on Aging, and has appeared in Psychological Science, Psychology and Aging, and Emotion. He is currently an Associate Editor of Emotion as well as Psychology and Aging, and chairs the National Institute on Aging’s Behavior and Social Science of Aging grant review panel. He was the 2006 recipient of APA Division 20’s Spring Early Career Achievement Award, and the 2009 recipient of the Paul and Margret Baltes Award for Early Career Contributions in Behavioral and Social Gerontology from the Gerontological Society of America.
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We’ve all heard the advice to “look on the bright side” when we are feeling down – but is it good advice? For the last ten years, research in my lab has used eye tracking to measure, in nearly real-time, where people actually look when presented with pictures or videos featuring emotional content. Early on, we simply assessed whether there were differences between groups of people in how they looked at emotional information; in other words, do some groups of people literally look on the bright side (i.e., to more positive material) more than others? Then, we attempted to determine whether looking on the bright side is actually helpful in regulating mood. Most recently, we have tested to what degree looking on the bright side may also relate to other behavioral outcomes, such as health behaviors. Below, I summarize what we have learned from our eye tracking work about the ways in which links between looking, feeling, and doing may vary as a function of age.

The Method: Eye Tracking

How can we study where people look when presented with emotional information? Psycholinguists and marketers have long used eye tracking to investigate visual attention in reading and what is most attention-grabbing in advertisements. In 2001, we decided to try using eye tracking to study differences between groups in looking at emotional and, in particular, negatively-valenced information. Our basic set-up has been to present emotional stimuli (emotional scenes, emotional faces) on a computer monitor as participants’ eye movements are recorded at a frequency of 60 Hz. To distinguish moments of actually looking at target stimuli on the screen from times when an individual may be looking around, we assess looking by evaluating “fixations” – times when a person’s gaze is in a particular location on the screen for at least 100 ms (Manor & Gordon, 2003). Generally, we ask participants in the studies to “look naturally” at the stimuli on the screen, in order to mimic their naturalistic viewing patterns as they encounter emotional information such as on TV or on the internet.

Our earliest work investigated differences between more and less optimistic young adults (measured by self-report questionnaire)  as they looked at negative images showing skin cancer (melanoma): we found that optimists appeared to “look on the bright side” of these images in that they looked less at the most unpleasant parts of them (Isaacowitz, 2005; Luo & Isaacowitz, 2007).

Age Differences in Looking Patterns to Emotional Information

We next considered possible age differences in the tendency to look on the bright side of emotional stimuli. This question was interesting because Laura Carstensen’s socioemotional selectivity theory (e.g., Carstensen, 2006) argues that perceived time limitations lead older adults to prioritize how they feel over other possible goals. This motivation-based theory has been applied to older adults’ social choices (e.g., who they choose to spend time with), but more recently has generated the idea that older adults may display “positivity effects” in their attention and memory as well. Basically, the idea is that older adults attend to and remember relatively more positive, and less negative, stimuli in their environment; conceptually, the argument is that such cognitive preferences could help older adults achieve their goals of feeling good and regulating their emotions (though see Isaacowitz & Blanchard-Fields, in press, for further discussion of this argument). Partial support for this hypothesis comes from findings that older adults report more positive affect in their lives (Carstensen et al., 2011). Could age-related differences in looking patterns reflect motivational differences and lead to differences in affective experience?

In several studies using synthetic emotional faces as target stimuli (Isaacowitz, Wadlinger, Goren, & Wilson, 2006a, 2006b), we found that older adults (generally defined as age 60 and above) showed apparent positivity effects in their looking patterns toward faces varying in emotional expressions, such that they looked more at positive faces in positive-neutral pairs and less at some types of negative faces in negative-neutral pairs. We refer to this pattern, which may be considered age-related positivity effects in the gaze patterns, as positive looking preferences. Younger adults did not display positive looking preferences. These studies also were able to establish that age differences in looking patterns were not simply side effects of general age-related change in cognitive functioning and were specific to emotional stimuli.

In follow-up studies, we have learned more about these age-related positive looking preferences: for example, they may be displayed even under certain conditions of divided attention (Allard & Isaacowitz, 2008), they are not associated with increased cognitive effort as measured with pupillometry (Allard, Wadlinger, & Isaacowitz, 2010), and they vary to some degree as a function of culture (Fung et al., 2008). Among American older adults, positive looking preferences are found not only for emotional faces but also when viewing emotionally-evocative negative images, and these age differences are robust in the face of attempts to train them away (Isaacowitz & Choi, 2011).

While these findings show age differences in looking at valenced stimuli such that older adults show a more positive looking pattern, they do not by themselves show that age-related looking patterns are related to emotion regulation or affective outcomes. In other words, just showing that older adults look on the bright side does not provide direct evidence that age differences in looking have anything to do with age differences in feeling: older adults might look on the bright side for other reasons altogether (neural changes: Cacioppo, Bernston, Bechara, Tranel, & Hawkley, in press), and/or looking on the bright side might not actually help older adults to feel good.

Linking Looking to Feeling

We have tried to test whether older adults’ tendency to look on the bright side is actually related to emotion regulation and affective outcomes. We have assessed mood using a potentiometer slider continuously at the same time as participants are having their eyes tracked: participants indicate their current mood by moving the slider. First, we showed that positive looking patterns emerge for older adults when they are in negative rather than neutral or positive moods (Isaacowitz, Toner, Goren, & Wilson, 2008), suggesting that positive looking patterns may indeed arise for emotion regulatory purposes. But do they work? Does looking on the bright side lead older adults to experience positive moods downstream? We have assessed this question in two studies. In one, we found that older adults who showed positive looking patterns could resist the mood declines associated with a lab task but only when they had good attentional abilities (Isaacowitz, Toner, & Neupert, 2009). This basic pattern was replicated in another study using negative emotional scenes rather than faces; here, participants were explicitly instructed to try to regulate how they felt as they viewed the upsetting images. Older adults with good attentional abilities were best able to resist the mood impact of looking at unpleasant pictures by activating a positive looking approach – looking less at the most evocative parts of the negative images (Noh, Lohani, & Isaacowitz, in press).

These findings suggest a story about links between looking and feeling among older adults: when presented with negative emotional stimuli in mood-relevant contexts, older adults may look less at the negative images, and doing so helps those older adults with good attentional abilities feel good. Older adults with worse attentional abilities display positive looking patterns but we do not find evidence that these looking patterns relate to positive affective outcomes for them.

What about links between looking and feeling in younger adults? We were unsure what to expect in terms of these links for younger adults, but across several studies a consistent, albeit surprising, pattern has emerged. In one study, we found that younger adults showed a more negative looking pattern when in bad moods (Isaacowitz et al., 2008); while this could certainly reflect a simple mood-congruent response, other findings suggest it may actually reflect a regulatory strategy itself. In two studies, looking more at negative images was actually related to better moods in younger adults (Isaacowitz et al., 2009; Noh et al., in press).

Why might positive looking predict better moods in older adults but negative looking predict better moods in younger adults? Why shouldn’t looking on the bright side be a good strategy for younger adults too? It may be that these different patterns reflect the implementation of different emotion regulatory strategies (see also Isaacowitz & Noh, 2011). In James Gross’s process model of emotion regulation (e.g., Gross, 1998), several different types of emotion regulation strategies are considered. One type is attentional deployment: shifting how one attends to potentially emotion-eliciting stimuli. Another type is cognitive change: reinterpreting or reappraising the meaning of emotion-eliciting stimuli to reduce their impact. Older and younger adults may be using different regulatory strategies: older adults’ positive looking would thus reflect the use of attentional deployment. Younger adults’ negative looking may reflect the use of reappraisal; in order to reappraise material from a negative image, it may be necessary to engage with it visually. In recent pilot work in our lab, we have found that some types of reappraisal are indeed associated with heightened looking at negative stimuli. Thus, younger adults’ engagement with negative images may reflect an adaptive use of reappraisal, whereas older adults’ disengagement from negative images may reflect an adaptive use of attentional deployment. Why different age groups may prefer different types of regulatory strategies is a topic for future research, though there is some suggestion that it may reflect best matches to relative strengths and weaknesses in terms of cognitive and social resources (see Charles, 2010; Urry & Gross, 2010).

From Feeling to Doing

Older adults’ looking on the bright side may help them to regulate their emotional state, but what happens when the negative information they are looking less at in order to feel good is important and/or health-relevant? We have investigated the possibility of a trade-off between feeling good and acting in accordance with negative but health-relevant messages in the context of skin cancer (Isaacowitz & Choi, in press). Older and younger adults viewed videos about skin cancer featuring both negative and informative content as their eyes were tracked, and their mood was recorded using a slider during and after the videos. We also assessed their learning of skin cancer information from the videos. Participants’ behavior in line with the videos was assessed in several ways: measuring their interest in viewing webpages with additional information about skin cancer, counting the number of giveaway materials they took that could help them engage in positive health behavior as suggested in the videos, and whether they conducted a skin self-exam at home and returned the report of it as instructed.

Older adults generally looked less at the negative emotional content in the videos, and showed a faster emotion regulation response compared to their younger counterparts. While they learned less from the videos, they did not show any deficits in engaging in the health behaviors suggested by the videos; in fact, they were more likely to take give-away items and to return the skin self-exam. There was no difference in viewing webpages. This finding suggests that older adults’ lessened fixation to negative emotional material does help them with their mood but does not necessarily impair them behaviorally; while they may learn fewer details about the negative messages, their looking strategy may help them efficiently extract the key information from the messages, and to act on that information.

Future Directions

In linking looking and feeling to doing, one clear next step will be to extend our paradigm to behaviors beyond skin cancer self-exam and risk reduction. We plan to investigate links between looking, feeling and doing in the context of diet and nutrition as well. We also will determine whether looking predicts behavioral outcomes beyond the lab, such as changing everyday sun exposure habits and/or dietary practices after leaving the lab. We also plan to expand our investigation of older adults’ emotion regulation strategies to another component of the process model: situation selection. Some theorists have suggested that older adults may utilize situation selection as a key strategy to avoid encountering potentially disruptive stimuli in their environment (e.g., Charles, 2010), but no paradigms have existed to study it. We have developed an “affective environment” in which participants can select what types of stimuli (positive, negative, neutral) to engage with; our pilot data suggest age differences in selection of affective stimuli. More importantly, mobile eye tracking will allow us to assess the real-time interplay of situation selection and attentional deployment: when an individual chooses to engage with something negative, how do they look at it, and how does that make them feel? Does this vary by age? This approach will better approximate the real-world settings where individuals of different ages actually do their looking and feeling.

While eye tracking can tell us what an individual is looking at, it is also important to understand other components of a perceiver’s response to emotional stimuli, so we are starting to assess psychophysiological channels such as heart rate and electromyography simultaneously with eye tracking. Finally, we have only used an extreme-groups age design in our research so far, so a key issue for future research will be to include middle-aged individuals.


So, what have we learned about looking on the bright side? Whereas younger individuals may actually benefit – at least in terms of their moods – from looking more at the darker side of things, literally looking on the bright side of emotional stimuli seems to be a key tool for older adults to regulate their emotions, and it may not be associated with behavioral deficits. Put another way, older adults – at least in our investigations so far – do not seem to need to choose between mood and health: they are able to interact with the world in a way that helps them to regulate their mood while also engaging in positive health behavior. Older adults may even use committing to engage in health behavior as a regulatory strategy itself, leading them to feel good and do good things as well. It may be that it is younger adults who must choose between regulating their emotions and engaging in health behaviors, as they did not regulate their moods as well and in some cases engaged in fewer health behaviors than did older adults; however, we have not yet tested whether younger adults could do better in different circumstances. These patterns may have implications for the design of health messages. Younger adults may benefit from seeing “just the facts” so their emotion regulation attempts do not interfere with their ability to learn health information. Perhaps looking on the bright side can be harnessed to improve older adults’ health behavior; at the very least, older adults’ feeling good and behaving in health-promoting ways may not be mutually exclusive.


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