Are you familiar with the stereotype ” Oh their just cranky old people.” Well new research states older adults actually appear to enjoy pleasant emotions and recall more positive images than do younger adults.
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In 2001, Susan Turk Charles, PhD, Chandra Reynolds, PhD, and Margaret Gatz, PhD, reported that the tendency exhibited by most people to have a positive outlook extends into old age. A longitudinal study of 2,704 people in four generations of families, which ran from 1971 to 1994, asked participants “positive affect” (emotion or mood) questions, such as, “During the past few weeks, did you ever feel particularly excited or interested in something?” They also asked “negative affect” questions, such as, “During the past few weeks, did you feel so restless that you couldn’t sit long in a chair?”
The researchers found that for all generations, negative affect decreased with age. In other words, as people got older, they got less negative. Positive affect stayed fairly stable across time, with a small decrease for the oldest people in the study. However, older participants who were more outgoing were less likely to show a drop in positive affect.
In 2003, Dr. Charles, with Mara Mather, PhD, and Laura Carstensen, PhD, reported on additional research showing that older adults recall relatively more positive and fewer negative images than younger adults. Two studies examined 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 showed participants the images and then tested recall (how many they remembered) and recognition memory (whether they accurately picked what they saw from a larger group of images). Older adults (ages 65-80) recalled fewer negative images relative to positive and neutral images. In that older group, recognition memory also decreased for negative pictures. As a result, the younger adults (ages 18-29 and 41-53) remembered the negative pictures better. What’s more, although both younger and older adults spent more time viewing negative images, only the younger group recalled and recognized them better.