Take a look at these two photographs of my son Jim taken a month or so after he was born (and, as he would be quick to point out, nearly 14 years ago). Which is more memorable?
It may depend on your age. It’s natural for your priorities to change as you get older, and so it seems, you may have a different response to pictures depicting emotions. Your kids grow up and leave home, and suddenly Little League and Disney seem less significant. Perhaps fine wine and opera rise up to fill that void. Later still, you begin to think about retirement, and gradually it seems more important to reach out to family and friends. Laura Carstensen was part of a group of researchers who developed a “socioemotional selectivity theory” to explain these changes—they argued that our emotion-related goals increase in importance as we age because we are assessing how much longer we have to live.
As we age, they claim, emotion increasingly becomes the central motivator for a wide sphere of actions, from who we choose to spend time with to how we deal with problems. Perhaps surprisingly, this reorienting of goals around emotions, all motivated by impending death, leads to the result that older adults are better off emotionally than younger people.
Carstensen joined with Martha Mather to expand on these conclusions—they wanted to see if this focus on emotions in older adults also affected cognition, and so they developed a simple reaction-time and memory test. Two groups of people participated in the study: older adults with an average age of 74, and younger adults averaging age 26. They were questioned about their emotional state, and consistent with socioemotional selectivity theory, the younger adults scored significantly lower than older adults on an index of negative emotion.
The participants were shown pairs of photos of 60 different faces. Each pair of photos depicted the same person: one with a neutral expression, and one showing an emotion— happy, sad, or angry. The photos remained on screen for 1 second, then disappeared. In place of one of the photos, a small grey dot appeared, and participants were asked to press a button on the keyboard to indicate where the dot had appeared (left or right).
As you might expect, the younger adults responded much faster than older adults—in about 420 milliseconds compared to 780 for older adults. But when responses to emotional faces were compared to those for neutral faces, another striking difference appeared:
These results were obtained by subtracting the average reaction time for the emotional face from the reaction time for the neutral face in a pair. For younger people, there was no significant difference in reaction times between emotional faces and neutral faces, or even between positive and negative faces. For older people, the emotion difference in the faces caused a comparatively large difference in reaction times. The slowest reaction times were always for negative faces, and the fastest times were for positive faces.
After participants completed the reaction time test, Mather and Carstensen tested memory. They showed viewers a new set of paired photos, each containing one previously-viewed face and one new face. The emotions in these new pairs of photos always matched: the task was to indicate which face they had seen before. Here are the results:
When the emotion for the test pair was happy and the original pair of photos had been happy/neutral, older adults were significantly more likely to correctly recall the old picture than for any other condition. While younger adults were somewhat less likely to remember old negative faces, for the most part the emotion of the faces did not impact their memory for faces.
Mather and Carstensen conclude that these results show not only that subjective attention to emotional issues change as we age, but also the way our basic cognitive processes work when we are confronted with emotional images. Motivated by impending death, emotion affects our life priorities, but these important changes as we age also impact our ability to react to and remember simple images.
Mather, M., & Carstensen, L.L. (2003). Aging and attentional biases for emotional faces. Psychological Science, 14 (5), 409-415.