Aging and Emotional Memory: The Forgettable Nature of Negative Images for Older Adults

Authors: Susan Turk Charles, University of California, Irvine; Mara Mather, University of California, Santa Cruz; Laura Carstensen, Stanford University

Publication: Journal of Experimental Psychology

Year: 2003

Focus Area: Emotion, Memory, Aging

Relevance: Understanding what information is most likely to be retained by different population segments helps explain why older adults may be more likely to fall for a fraud ploy and helps maximize the preventative education of potential fraud victims.

Summary: Older adults are more likely to forget information with a negative emotional impact, in part because older adults have a different mental focus.  Their emphasis is more on emotional meaningfulness rather than monetary rewards or “goal striving.”  Thanks to this shift in focus with age, they improve their control of emotions and increasingly avoid (or fail to encode) negative emotional content.  As a result, information with positive emotional relevance continues to be retained, while information with negative emotional relevance is more likely to be forgotten.

  • Educational materials and other information targeting older adults are more likely to be remembered if they contain imagery with a positive emotional impact.
  • There is evidence of correlation between the mood of an individual and that person’s ability to recall emotionally charged information; for example, a person in a negative emotional state is more likely to recall negative information.
  • Both younger and older adults spend greater amounts of time examining images with negative emotional impact, yet older adults’ memory performance does not benefit from this extra time.  This may relate to (and further research needs to explore) greater activation of the amygdala in younger adults than in older adults when processing negative information.

Author Abstract: Two studies examined age differences in recall and recognition memory for positive, negative, and neutral stimuli. In Study 1, younger, middle-aged, and older adults were shown images on a computer screen and, after a distraction task, were asked first to recall as many as they could and then to identify previously shown images from a set of old and new ones. The relative number of negative images compared with positive and neutral images recalled decreased with each successively older age group. Recognition memory showed a similar decrease with age in the relative memory advantage for negative pictures. In Study 2, the largest age differences in recall and recognition accuracy were also for the negative images. Findings are consistent with socioemotional selectivity theory, which posits greater investment in emotion regulation with age.

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