Research Shows Positivity Comes Easier As We Age

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November 15, 2018 - 6:45am

New research from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shows older adults have greater motivation to experience positivity than young adults. NET's Brandon McDermott speaks with researcher Maital Neta, assistant professor of Psychology at UNL, about what the research shows as well as what this could mean to people as they age.


Brandon McDermott, NET News: Your study shows older adults have a limited perspective and a greater motivation to experience positivity than younger adults. Is it safe to say older adults view life's challenges and surprises in a more positive light?

Dr. Maital Neta, University of Nebraska-Lincoln: That's exactly what we're trying to show so actually there's a lot of work that came before us that shows that older adults pay attention to more positive things than negative things and when asked to recall events from their life they remember the more positive things compared to the negative things. So, what we're trying to do in the lab is we're building on that by demonstrating that when faced with something that is emotionally uncertain – something that could be positive or negative – older adults for lack of a better word choose to see the more positive interpretation.

McDermott: You also note that older adults have a more positive valence bias tied to their goals. Could you elaborate on that for us?

Neta: Valence is a term that basically represents the extent to which something has a positive or negative meaning. It's on a scale from being very positive to being very negative. So then the valence bias is the tendency for a person to interpret something as having a positive or negative meaning. There are lots of things that we encounter that we know have a very clear meaning, for example, an angry face or a happy face have a very clear negative or positive meaning. Then there are lots of things that are ambiguous. We encounter them and we don't know immediately whether something is positive or negative.

McDermott: Your research also shows valence bias is malleable and sensitive to time perspectives. Why is that?

Neta: Essentially what that means is they're more aware of the fact that they don't have a lot of time left. It sort of shifts their goals and their motivations. When we're younger, we tend to want to go out and explore new environments, meet new people and as we get older we sort of come to decide – what are the places we like? Who are the people we want to spend time with? So having this kind of limited time perspective shifts our goals, how we kind of go about our daily lives.

McDermott: Can where we are in life have a large impact on how we react to life changes and how we process emotions?

Neta: Absolutely. There's lots of work that looks at this across the life span. Where we are in our life span, whether we're a child or middle-aged or an older adult, it can certainly have all kinds of effects on how we process new information, how we respond emotionally, how we process or regulate our emotions – but also the life experiences that we have can have a huge impact on our emotional responses. That's a much harder thing to test in the lab because it relies on somebody’s willingness and ability to report on their life's experiences. But some work – both in animals and humans – has shown for example that early life stress – and one example of that is being institutionalized as a child – can have all kinds of outcomes on how we process emotions and how we relate to other people.

McDermott: What is next for your research?

Neta: Since you are really interested in this kind of life span question, it turns out that children are more negative. Children have a more negative valence bias. If we can understand what it is about this natural trajectory that sort of gets us towards more positivity as we age, one thing I would really like to do is be able to speed that up for certain people because there are lots of people who experience this sort of chronic negativity – people that are depressed, people that are experiencing anxiety – they tend to approach things with a more negative lens. If we can sort of understand this mechanism that naturally gets us to more positivity with age, then perhaps we can help people to sort of speed that up in those that have a more negative bias.

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