In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Nicholas Lynchard of SUNY Ulster reveals why the elderly are better at recalling positive information.
Nicholas Lynchard is an assistant professor of psychology at the State University of New York – Ulster where he teaches courses in psychology, memory and learning, and lifespan development. His work has been published in a number of peer-reviewed journals and he holds a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame.
Dr. Nicholas Lynchard – Age and Positive Memory
Nevermind the cranky, behind-the-times older adult stereotype mass media often portrays, cognitive
psychologists have found that older adults actually attend to and remember more positive information than younger adults. But why? Why do older adults get all the nice feelings and younger adults are stuck naturally wired to remember more negative stuff? Is it just because they’re older?
Well, yes and no. Socioemotional Selectivity Theory suggests that aging does not change emotion processing directly, but, instead, naturally brings about a limited-time perspective which does. In other words, as people age, they become increasingly aware that their time on earth is limited – so, they naturally try to make the best of it. If this is the case, anyone, regardless of age, should be able to experience a shift in the focus of their emotion processing by simply taking a different age-related perspective.
To examine this, my colleagues and I asked younger and older adults to complete two simple memory tasks using positive, negative, and neutral emotion words. In between the two tasks, older and younger adults were asked to think of and write a few sentences about themselves as though they were an age in contrast to their own. That is, older adults thought of themselves as being younger adults, and younger adults as older adults.
As expected, in the first memory task, older adults better remembered positive words while younger adults better remembered negative words. However, in the second memory task, older and younger adults showed reversed effects. Interestingly, for both older and younger adults, simply thinking of themselves as being a different age changed their ability to remember emotion information. Older adults suddenly shifted memory to more negative words and younger adults, to more positive words.
So, despite the rapidly changing times and what we may think, we can indeed benefit from learning to think like our elders.