Prof Mara Mather from the University of Southern California (lab) talks about the emotion paradox in the ageing brain. This apparent paradox lies in the fact that, as we get older, our health tends to decline, we start experiencing loss of close ones more frequently, we may even begin seeing some change in our cognitive ability (e.g., “I can’t do the crosswords as well as when I was 35!”), and so on. However, old age is often accompanied by what is called the age-related positivity effect and, possibly, improved emotional regulation. If you are interested in the age-related positivity effect, there are gozillions of papers out there about it to read, including one by me that should come out on Experimental Aging Research soon enough – Bruno et al., (In Press). Cognitive reserve and emotional stimuli in older individuals: Level of education moderates the age-related positivity effect. Experimental Aging Research, 40 – and much more.

In a nutshell, the age-related positivity effect refers to the finding that older people, compared to younger people, tend to emphasise positive information over negative or neutral information. So, for example, an older person may remember positive/happy experiences more readily or more accurately than negative/unhappy experiences, or may be faster at responding to positive stimuli than negative ones, or will choose positive items over negative items, and so on and so forth.

Studying and talking about the age-related positivity effect is heart-warming and fun, but I will leave you to research it further in your own time (I also lecture on it to Year 3 students, so you can always enrol in one of my courses…*). What I would like to mention briefly is that, on the flip side, there is also some evidence that younger adults, say undergraduate-aged adults**, show a negativity effect. Meaning that, rather than emphasising positive information, younger adults tend to focus more on negative information – for example, memory for negative stimuli is more accurate than memory for neutral or positive stimuli, e.g., I will remember the word PAIN more frequently than the word KITTEN.


However, a recent paper that I co-authored – White, Kapucu, Bruno, Rotello & Ratcliff (In Press). Memory bias for negative emotional words in recognition memory is driven by effects of category membership. Cognition & Emotion. –  only just accepted for publication, challenges this view. I am reporting the abstract (in its current form) below – the whole paper should be available online from Cognition & Emotion soon, so look out for that if you’re interested!

Recognition memory studies often find that emotional items are more likely than neutral items to be labeled as studied. Previous work suggests this bias is driven by increased memory strength/familiarity for emotional items.  We explored strength and bias interpretations of this effect with the conjecture that emotional stimuli might seem more familiar because they share features with studied items from the same category.  Categorical effects were manipulated in a recognition task by presenting lists with a small, medium, or large proportion of emotional words.  The liberal memory bias for emotional words was only observed when a medium or large proportion of categorized words were presented in the lists.  Similar, though weaker, effects were observed with categorized words that were not emotional (animal names).  These results suggest that liberal memory bias for emotional items is mainly driven by effects of category membership.

The end. [I didn’t have a photo of a kitten, so that’s a photo of Scilla, my cat]

* Speaking of which, I am giving two mini-lectures at the next two open days, so if you are thinking about studying Psychology…

** Cognitive Psychology is also known as the discipline that studies the keyboard pressing behaviour of psychology undergraduates.


About Davide Bruno

Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University
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