As we get older memory "accentuates the positive"
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AS WE GET OLDER, MEMORY "ACCENTUATES THE POSITIVE,
" HELPING EXPLAIN WHY AGING CAN FOSTER GOOD FEELINGS
Younger Adults Find it Harder to Filter Out Negative Images
WASHINGTON - Here's good news about aging: When it comes to remembering
emotional images, we tend -- as we get older -- to do what the song said, and
"accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative." Three California
psychologists found that compared with younger adults, older adults recalled
fewer negative than positive images. The memory bias favoring the recall of
positive images increased in successively older age groups. The findings appear
in the June issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, which is
published by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psychologists have recently documented the tendency of older people to regulate
their emotions more effectively than younger people, by maintaining positive
feelings and lowering negative feelings. Researchers led by Susan Turk Charles,
Ph.D., of the University of California, Irvine, wanted to understand how this
happens -- and focused on the role of memory.
Charles and her colleagues conducted two studies to examine age differences in
memory for positive, negative and neutral images of people, animals, nature
scenes and inanimate objects. For example, among the "people" pictures, a
positive image showed a man and a young boy at the beach watching seagulls
overhead; a negative image showed a couple looking sorrowful as they stand in a
cemetery and stare down at a tombstone; and a neutral image showed scuba divers
checking their gear by the side of a dock.
In both experiments, the psychologists first showed participants the images.
Next, they tested recall (how many they remembered) and recognition memory
(whether they accurately picked what they saw from a larger group of images).
The first study tested 144 participants in groups of ages 18-29, 41-53 and
65-80. Older adults recalled fewer negative images relative to positive and
neutral images. For the older adults, recognition memory also decreased for
negative pictures. As a result, the younger adults remembered the negative
In a second study of 64 participants (divided equally between ages 19-30 and
ages 63-86), the authors ruled out mood as a contributing factor, by testing
participants for mood and depression before presenting the images. Mood
affected younger and older people alike, ruling it out as the reason why -
again -- the largest age-related differences in memory were for negative
Although both younger and older adults spent more time viewing negative images,
only the younger group recalled and recognized them better.
The research supports the "socioemotional selectivity" theory that, as people
get older and become more aware of more limited time left in life, they direct
their attention to more positive thoughts, activities and memories. "With age,"
write the authors, "people place increasingly more value on emotionally
meaningful goals and thus invest more cognitive and behavioral resources in
Physiology may aid the process. Dr. Mara Mather, an author of the article, and
colleagues have done preliminary brain research suggesting that in older
adults, the amygdala is activated equally to positive and negative images,
whereas in younger adults, it is activated more to negative images. This
suggests that older adults encode less information about negative images, which
in turn would diminish recall.
Article: "Aging and Emotional Memory: The Forgettable Nature of Negative Images
for Older Adults," Susan Turk Charles, Ph.D., University of California, Irvine;
Mara Mather, Ph.D., University of California, Santa Cruz; and Laura L.
Carstensen, Ph.D., Stanford University; Journal of Experimental Psychology:
General, Vol. 132. No. 2.
Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and
Reporters: Susan Turk Charles can be reached by Email or by phone at (949)
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