Emotion as a Processing Goal
We will examine the idea of socio-emotional selectivity with aging in Chapter 10. For the purposes of this chapter you need to know that this theory maintains that emotional goals become increasingly important and salient as we grow older (Carstensen, 1995; Carsetensen et al., 2003). It is primarily a motivational model, which posits that the degree to which an individual construes time as limited or expansive leads to the ranking of emotional goals as high or knowledge-seeking goals as high in priority, respectively. Thus, given limited time left in the life span, older adults may be more motivated to emphasize emotional goals and aspects of life. We will examine this motivational factor in the context of maintaining and choosing intimate relationships in Chapter 10. However, it also can be applied in the context of social information processing.
A growing number of studies suggest that older adults avoid negative information and focus more on positive information when making decisions and judgments and when remembering events (Carstensen et al., 2000; Carstensen, Mikels, & Mather, 2006; Charles et al., 2003; Mather & Carstensen, 2003). This phenomenon has received much attention in the literature and is called a positivity effect. For example, older adults remember more positive images than negative ones, whereas younger adults remember both positive and negative images equally well (Charles et al., 2003). When examining what types of stimuli younger and older adults initially attend
to, Mather and Carstensen (2003) found that older adults allocate less attention to negative stimuli (e. g., angry faces) than younger adults do. Older adults also remember more positive information when recalling their own autobiographical information (Kennedy, Mather, & Carstensen, 2004) and remember the positive aspects of their decisions more so than the negative ones (Mather, Knight, & McCaffrey, 2005).
An alternative perspective proposes that focusing on negative information is adaptive because it signals danger and vulnerability and thus is important for survival. This emphasis on negativity has been found in both the social and cognitive neuroscience literature for well over a decade (e. g., Lane & Nadel, 2000; Rozin & Royzman, 2001). Within the social cognitive aging literature, some studies demonstrate that older adults spend more time viewing negative stimuli (Charles et al., 2003) and display a negativity effect (Thomas & Hasher, 2006; Wood & Kisley, 2006). With respect to memory, Gruhn and colleagues (2005) found no evidence for a positivity effect, and instead, found evidence for reduced negativity effect in older adults when remembering a list of words with negative, positive, and neutral valence. When incidentally encoding pictures, both younger and older adults recalled the central element more than the peripheral elements only for negative scenes. However, when instructed to attend to this difference, only younger adults overcame this encoding bias, whereas older adults could not overcome the memory trade-off (Kensinger, Piguet, Krendl, & Corkin, 2005).
Emotional goals appear to help older adults in that they can create a supportive context for their cognitive functioning. Remember we discussed the fact that older adults create more false memories than younger adults do in Chapter 6. Research on the interface between emotions and cognition suggest that the distinctiveness of emotions helps older adults to reduce the number of false memories produced (Kensinger & Corkin, 2004; May, Rahhal, Berry, & Leighton, 2005). However, it is important to also recognize that there are times when emotions may impede information processing. For example, situations that are highly arousing and require a
great amount of executive control processing (discussed in Chapter 6) may lead older adults to be poorer at remembering and processing information (Kensinger & Corkin, 2004; Mather & Knight, 2005; Wurm, Labouvie-Vief, Aycock, Rebucal, & Koch,
2004) . In addition, a focus on only positive information can interfere with decision making by leading older adults to miss out on important negative information necessary for making a quality decision (Lockenhoff & Carstensen, 2004).