Second Blooming: Age-related Positivity Effect

“To keep the heart unwrinkled,

to be hopeful, kindly, cheerful, reverent-

 that is to triumph over old age.”

 Thomas Bailey Aldrich [1]

By examining the faces on famous paintings in galleries, we conventionally see wisdom, nobleness, and dignity; but also melancholy, loneliness, and fatigue. Happy, vigorous, and cheerful characters are rarely found in canvases. Particularly, representations of elderly people are surprisingly often in the visual arts were Rembrandt, Dürer, Rubens, Velázquez, and others, traditionally have portrayed the elderly in a negative or depressive manner.

Self Portrait at the Age of 63
Rembrandt (Painter). 1669. Self Portrait at the age of 63. The National Gallery. Retrieved from Wikipedia under CCO Public Domain Licence [21]
Although an association of aging with incompetence, cognitive impairment, and anger was mostly referred to as “stigmatization” in the western culture [2], a negative bias against the older generation seems to be present cross-culturally [3, 4].  Here, age-related physical and cognitive debilitation has been persistently related to emotional disturbances [5], possibly emerging from a framing effect elicited by mass media, social, and political sources that highlight selective aspects of our reality [6].

Accumulating Positivity

 Against this background, a recent neuroscientific discovery that healthy aging not only preserves full emotional spectrum but to some extent augments it [7], is really striking. Indeed, persistent evidence of decreased biological and cognitive capacity in elderly is hard to reconcile with a growing number of facts that older people control their emotions better, experience less negative emotions, notice, remember, and focus on the pleasant facts and events, are prone to embellish their memories, and strongly believe in universal benevolence [5, 8, 9].

This phenomenon was first observed by Carstensen and al. (2003) and dubbed ‘Positivity effect’, comprising the age-related sharpening of memory and attention towards the positive aspects of life [8, 11] which later on became a hallmark of ‘Positivity Effect’.

The subsequent increase of studies investigating this subject, have accumulated a bulk of behavioral evidence that people above 60 years have positive-biased perception of and attention to their surroundings. This repeatedly manifests in multiple domains, namely visual, auditory sensation, perception, attention and memory [11]; for both genders, and to large degree independent of socioeconomic status [9].

Motivational shift or cognitive decline?

Given the stream of newly revealed benefits of healthy aging, it came as no surprise that the analysis of causality and the embodiment of ‘Positivity effect’ have moved into the forefront of the research focus. A few influential theories of Positivity effect merit attention in this regard.

The main thesis of Socioemotional selectivity theory (SST) is that perception of time is a key player in the shaping of individuals’ motivational goals [10]. At young ages, people are prone to be oblivious to the finiteness of life, and tend to spend time in pursuit of new experience, knowledge, sensations, and exploration. With increasing age, a life-time constraint becomes increasingly obvious, and thus causes the prioritization of emotion-related goals, habits, and social life [8].

Such positive shift in perception could be due to processes associated with a normally aging brain, including the alterations in brain structure and function, and ensuing cognitive decline. In this respect, several brain regions are at the main focus [12]. Amygdala, which serves as a gateway for the incoming emotional information (especially negative or threatening) [11] and Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) is associated with executive function, but a subpart, ventromedial prefrontal cortex – with emotion control and inhibition of emotional responses [13]. It was hypothesized (Aging-brain theory), that the ‘positivity effect’ results from neural changes particularly in the amygdala [9]. Conversely, in recent meta-analysis it was explicitly stated that the main characters in emotion processing amygdala and PFC are preserved compared to other regions [13].

Thus, it is clear that age-related neural decline will not provide a full account for the ‘Positivity effect’, thus giving way for the Socioemotional selectivity theory [19].

The power of Positivity

 According to SST, relationships are important particularly for older people. Emotional experience, personal relevance, meaningful social contacts, and well-being become more significant with age [10]. Social selectivity of older people has a qualitative and quantitative nature.  Specifically, they would prefer to spend time with few very close familiar friends, family members over new contacts or crowded places [14]. Elderly also pay particular attention to the quality and completeness of these relations [14].

A large body of evidence shows that elderly actively employ effective emotion-regulation strategies [8], facing a conflict they usually opted not to interfere but rather to disengage from the unpleasant situations [15]. They are more competent in solving interpersonal problems [8], which definitely yields them a benefit in the form of affective wellbeing [15]. Similarly, situations with emotional and social selectivity can also be viewed from the perspective of an effective self-regulation approach [14], that is, to consider the Positivity effect as a byproduct of an effective emotion-regulation strategy. Furthermore, an age-related Positivity effect is positively correlated with psychological well-being, life satisfaction, good mood, and negatively with depression [16] and even with mortality risk [7].

A fly in the ointment

Along with growing amount of reports successfully proving the Positivity effect, some studies have failed to detect it, which significantly undermined the strength of previous statements [8]. Fortunately, the main experimental conditions that decrease the effect have been found. Namely, this effect is very sensitive to the task conditions and constraints, particularly, when imposed rules distract individuals from the main task, or hamper them to act in a full accordance with their internal motivational goals [11].

In addition to this, it turned out that older adults do not recruit a positive-oriented-mode in situations with high personal relevance that are high-stakes decisions [8]. This has immediate implications for medical and financial decisions. Due to the complex and multifaceted nature of this field, studies investigating decision making in older age have brought about highly heterogeneous results. Although some skeptics believe that a positively-tuned person is not capable to make fully informed crucial decisions [17], experimental tests witness the contrary – the quality of decision making is equal for old and young adults [11].

Another group of researchers tested the hypothesis that an age-related positivity view due to its one-sided approach may increase the already high level of vulnerability of elderly [11], which will in turn enhance the risk for them to fall prey to fraudsters. However, abovementioned observations posit, that in complex situations, older adults are prone to abolish the positivity-default-mode [8].

Comparing these findings with the social life of aging primates, might supply us with important insights for understanding human aging. Older primates have demonstrated a similar pattern of social selectivity as aging humans [20]. This suggests that awareness of restricted lifetime (according to SST) may be not the only factor accounting for the age-related motivational shifts in old age. As this phenomenon has potentially evolutionary origin it provides a good ground for the further investigations.

Older and Wiser

By integrating together scattered empirical evidence, an initially patchy mosaic may be assembled into a consistent and meaningful picture. The positivity effect seems to be a reflection of goal-directed behaviors in response to emotional inputs that are mediated by personal relevance. Among existing models, socioemotional selectivity theory proved to be more comprehensive, but not fully exhaustive, capturing many aspects of the phenomenon and distinctly spelling out the main conditions that decrease the effect. To summarize, preserved cognitive resources, possibility to act in agreement with own motivational goals, and favorable environment for the employment of preferable emotion-regulation strategy – are the necessary conditions for elderly to fully enjoy benefits of their age.

It seems, I can already hear an objection that these factors more likely speak in favor of sporadic, elusive, and thus unreliable nature of the effect. To some extent I agree, the experimental conditions that facilitated the discovery and manifestation of the Positivity effect in laboratory have very low ecological validity. Especially when it comes to deepen our knowledge aiming to investigate the origin of this phenomenon in social contexts, experiments will require the involvement of naturalistic elements [14].

This line of research is of particular importance, due to its immediate real life application. Although, during the last decades, questions of positive thinking received decent coverage in scientific and social fields, millions of people all over the world are still desperately struggling to fix their negative attitudes and general life dissatisfaction. Investigating factors that promote the emergence and application of Positivity effect in older age in daily life will be important to develop an effective toolkit equally suitable for all generations [14].

Some insights can be borrowed from positive psychology. The main message of ‘broaden-and-build’ theory (Fredrickson, B. 2001), is as follows, when individuals experience momentary positive emotions in daily life, this not only broadens and enriches their general perception of life opportunities, but also promotes building of new knowledge and social relationship in the long run [18].

That is, focusing on the beneficial aspects of aging will need to take an advantage of gained experience and knowledge over life, to perceive age-related ‘positivity effect’ as a gift, rather than to succumb to pessimistic predictions about imminent detrimental consequences of biased reality perception at the sunset of life.

An essential initial step would be to redefine what one considered as an old age. Outdated views should be profoundly and completely rethought, and revised. Older generations are becoming increasingly represented in the society. Advances in science and technology coupled with improved lifestyle have marked the end of the obsolete patterns and triggered a new loop of social evolution. Long life is a remarkable achievement of society, and an age-related Positivity effect is its fundamental virtue!


[1] “Thomas Bailey Aldrich.” Xplore Inc, 2016. 21 August 2016.

[2] Richeson, Jennifer A., and J. Nicole Shelton. “A social psychological perspective on the stigmatization of older adults.” When I’m 64 (2006): 174-208.

[3] Boduroglu, Aysecan, et al. “Age-related stereotypes: A comparison of American and Chinese cultures.” Gerontology 52.5 (2006): 324-333. DOI:10.1159/000094614 

[4] Kwon, Yookyung, et al. “Replicating the positivity effect in picture memory in Koreans: evidence for cross-cultural generalizability.” Psychology and aging 24.3 (2009): 748.

[5] Charles, Susan, and Laura L. Carstensen. “Social and emotional aging.” Annual review of psychology 61 (2010): 383. doi:  10.1146/annurev.psych.093008.100448

[6] Milner, Colin, Kay Van Norman, and Jenifer Milner. “The Media’s Portrayal of Ageing.” Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise? (2012): 25.

[7] Carstensen, Laura L., et al. “Emotional experience improves with age: evidence based on over 10 years of experience sampling.” Psychology and aging 26.1 (2011): 21. doi:  10.1037/a0021285

[8] Reed, Andrew E., Larry Chan, and Joseph A. Mikels. “Meta-analysis of the age-related positivity effect: age differences in preferences for positive over negative information.” Psychology and aging 29.1 (2014): 1. 

[9] Mather, Mara, and Laura L. Carstensen. “Aging and motivated cognition: The positivity effect in attention and memory.” Trends in cognitive sciences 9.10 (2005): 496-502. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2005.08.005

[10] Ziaei, Maryam, et al. “Are Age Effects in Positivity Influenced by the Valence of Distractors?.” PloS one 10.9 (2015): e0137604. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137604

[11] Reed, Andrew E., and Laura L. Carstensen. “The theory behind the age-related positivity effect.” (2012). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00339

[12] Subramaniam, Karuna, et al. “A brain mechanism for facilitation of insight by positive affect.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 21.3 (2009): 415-432. doi:10.1162/jocn.2009.21057

[13] Mather, Mara. “The affective neuroscience of aging.” Psychology 67.1 (2016): 213. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-psych-122414-033540

[14] Sims, Tamara, Candice L. Hogan, and Laura L. Carstensen. “Selectivity as an emotion regulation strategy: lessons from older adults.” Current opinion in psychology 3 (2015): 80-84. DOI: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.02.012

[15] Scheibe, Susanne, Gal Sheppes, and Ursula M. Staudinger. “Distract or reappraise? Age-related differences in emotion-regulation choice.” Emotion 15.6 (2015): 677. 

[16] Xu, Yuanyuan, et al. “Positive affect promotes well-being and alleviates depression: The mediating effect of attentional bias.” Psychiatry research 228.3 (2015): 482-487.       doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2015.06.011.

[17] Weierich, Mariann R., et al. “Older and wiser? An affective science perspective on age-related challenges in financial decision making.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience (2010): nsq056. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsq056

[18] Fredrickson, Barbara L. “The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.” American psychologist 56.3 (2001): 218.

[19] Kalenzaga, Sandrine, et al. “The positivity bias in aging: motivation or degradation?” (2016).

[20] Almeling, Laura, et al. “Motivational shifts in aging monkeys and the origins of social selectivity.” Current Biology 26.13 (2016): 1744-1749.


[21] Rembrant, (Painter). (1669). Self Portrait at the age of 63. The National Gallery, Trafalgar S., London WC2N. Retrieved from Wikipedia under CCO Public Domain Licence.

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