A maturing picture of emotion

Posted on December 1, 2016

What are some core emotional skills, and how they are affected by the process of ageing? Firstly: how does ageing influence the experience of emotion and the ability to understand and describe one's own emotions? Second: are there age effects on understanding others' emotions, and what factors influence these age effects?

Emotions are subjective internal experiences. Although some aspects of emotion can be physiologically measured (e.g. facial expressions by using electromyography), those measures often cannot tell us much about the type of emotion experienced or how it is appraised by the person experiencing it. In studies asking people to report the frequency with which they experience specific emotions on a daily basis, older adults generally report less frequent experience of intense positive and negative emotions than younger people do (e.g. Lawton et al., 1992). Should this lower level of emotional experience in old age be seen as evidence of a 'loss'? The influential 'disengagement' theory of ageing (Cumming & Henry, 1961) predicts emotional blunting in old age. Might decreased reporting of intense emotions reflect weaker autonomic nervous system activity in old age, as indicated by lower physiological response to emotional situations in older adults (Levenson et al., 1991)?

Most evidence to date instead suggests that older adults' lower reporting of intense emotions may in fact reflect superior emotion regulation skills (Gross et al., 1997), including a tendency to avoid situations likely to elicit intense emotions, and to reappraise negative emotions in a positive light. Older adults are particularly effective at regulating the inner experience of emotions (Phillips, Henry et al., 2008). Evidence indicates that although older adults may report fewer intense emotions in their daily lives, they often experience similarly intense emotions as young people when in identical situations. For example, when shown videos that elicit a strong disgust reaction, younger and older people reported similar levels of experienced emotion (Scheibe & Blanchard-Fields, 2009). Older and younger adults also report similar levels of subjective emotional reactivity to sad and funny films, despite lower cardiovascular responsivity to the films in older adults (Tsai et al., 2000).

There are some age differences in the nature of emotions reported. A detailed study of emotions experienced across the course of a week indicated no age differences in the frequency of positive emotions, and an age-related decline in negative emotions (Carstensen et al., 2000). A number of studies indicate that older adults are more likely to report experiencing positive emotions compared with their younger counterparts (Mather & Carstensen, 2005). Furthermore, older adults also tend to focus attention on stimuli of positive valence, whereas younger adults tend to focus attention on negative stimuli (Mather & Carstensen, 2005). This phenomenon has been labelled the 'positivity effect' or 'positivity bias' in adult ageing. A recent meta-analysis indicates that older adults' positivity bias is highly reliable, and shows across many domains of cognition (Reed et al., 2014).

Older adults are more likely to report experiencing a variety of blended emotions, such as a mixture of high- and low-arousing emotional states. For example, Charles (2005) documented that older adults reported stronger experiences of anger, sadness, contempt and disgust than younger adults in response to videos depicting themes of injustice. It has been suggested that heterogeneous emotional experiences (experiencing a multitude of emotions) indicates greater complexity in emotional awareness. Socioemotional selectivity theory (Carstensen et al., 2003) postulates that as time horizons shrink with increasing age, shifts in motivational goals typically ensue. This leads to greater investment in social relationships and, subsequently, an enhanced appreciation of life. According to this theory, older adults are therefore more likely to experience complex (heterogeneous) emotions as they typically strive to derive meaning from life. On the other hand, some theories suggest that heterogeneous emotional responding indicates a reduced ability to detect a primary emotion experienced in response to a given emotional event (Feldman Barrett et al., 2001). Thus, it could be argued that heterogeneous emotional reactivity evidenced among older adults may actually represent diffuse emotional responding. Another interpretation might be that older adults have difficulty in separating out the experience of different emotions; this leads us to consideration of a possible link between age and alexithymia.

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Category(s):Adult psychological development

Source material from British Psychological Society

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