Stress affects decision making differently depending on one's age and sex


Stress hormones affect prefrontal brain regions and dopaminergic pathways involved in decision making, yet little is known about how being stressed might change the way that people make decisions. We have found age differences in how stress affects decision making in a driving game (Mather, Gorlick, & Lighthall, 2009) and also sex differences in how stress affects decision making (Lighthall, Mather, & Gorlick, 2009). We are currently investigating the brain mechanisms of these effects. If you are interested in trying out the driving game, it is available here.

Emotional arousal affects memory binding


Binding various features of an event together and maintaining these connections in memory is essential to have an episodic memory that includes contextual details such as time and place. Depending on the situation and the type of contextual details, emotional arousal can either enhance or impair memory binding (Mather, 2007; Mather et al., 2006; Mather & Nesmith, 2008; Mitchell et al., 2006). These memory binding effects seem to be driven by arousal, rather than by valence (Mather & Sutherland, 2009).


If you learn that a neutral cue (such as a phone ringing) often predicts emotionally arousing events, does that make it easier or harder to learn new associations to that cue? Mather and Knight's (2008) experiments revealed that people had a harder time learning new associations to emotional harbinger cues than to other cues, suggesting that being associated with something arousing can impair new learning about something inherently neutral.

Inhibitory effects of emotion in memory


Can being reminded of some amusing kittens cause one to forget seeing some clowns? Sison and Mather's (2007) study indicates that remembering an emotional item can make it less likely that one will recall an item that evokes the same emotion. Click here for a summary of the study and here for a review chapter on how emotion can increase memory interference.

Older adults use cognitive resources to regulate emotion


As reviewed here and by the APA, older adults often show a positivity effect in attention and memory. We have been investigating whether older adults' positivity effects are the result of strategic, self-initiated processes. In several studies, we found that cognitive resources seem to play a key role in older adults' positivity effects. For instance, during full attention, older adults focus more on positive pictures than younger adults do--but when distracted, older adults focus more on negative pictures (Knight et al., 2007).

How aging changes decision making


Both younger and older adults show choice-supportive memory distortion, but perhaps because of their greater focus on emotion regulation, older adults are more choice supportive in their memories (Mather & Johnson, 2000). Older adults may also be more likely than younger adults to avoid making decisions, to help avoid experiencing the negative affect associated with decision making (Mather, 2006).


Older adults select as much variety as younger adults do for immediate consumption, but less variety for future consumption (Novak & Mather, 2007).