Emotional Memory and Aging: The Role of Cognitive Control

Emotion researchers have discovered that as people get older, they experience fewer negative emotions and report better control over their emotions.

One line of research in our lab investigates whether strategic processes in older adults' emotional attention and memory play a role in this improved emotional well-being with age.

We have found that older adults show more emotionally gratifying memory distortion for past choices and autobiographical information than younger adults do (Mather & Johnson, 2000; Kennedy, Mather, & Carstensen, 2004). In addition, when shown stimuli that varies in affective valence, positive items account for a larger proportion of older adults' subsequent memories than in younger adults (e.g., Charles, Mather, & Carstensen, 2003; Mather & Knight, 2005; Mather, Knight, & McCaffrey, 2005).

This positivity effect in older adults' memories seems to be due to their greater focus on emotion regulation and to be implemented by cognitive control mechanisms that enhance positive and diminish negative information.

For instance, when participants are simply asked to watch a slide show of pictures and later to recall the pictures (see Mather & Knight, 2005), older adults show a positivity effect when compared with younger adults:

In contrast, when participants are distracted because they must do a concurrent task while watching the picture show, most of what older adults recall consists of negative information:

These findings indicate that older adults use cognitive resources to help direct their attention and memory encoding processes towards information that will help them regulate their emotions (see also Knight et al., 2007).

In a couple of papers (Mather, 2006; Mather & Carstensen, 2005), we have proposed that age differences in the valence of emotional memory will be seen when cognitive control processes are likely to influence the memory process, but not when the nature of the emotional influence is more automatic (e.g., Mather & Knight, 2006, threat detection summary).

Nature of emotional influence on cognition Associated brain regions Impact of emotional goals Relevance for emotional attention Relevance for emotional memory
Automatic, bottom-up Amygdala: shows relatively little decline with age None or very little Arousing (especially threatening) information is noticed quickly by both younger and older adults, no age differences seen in this threat/arousal detection advantage Enhancement in memory for arousing stimuli is as large for older adults as it is for younger adults
Goal-directed, top-down, subject to cognitive control Prefrontal brain regions: show significant decline with age, reducing cognitive control abilities Significantly affected by emotional goals; extent of influence of these goals is constrained by the effectiveness of cognitive control processes Older adults attend less to negative stimuli and as much or more to positive stimuli as younger adults do A smaller proportion of what older adults remember is negative and their memories are more likely to be distorted in a positive direction (the positivity effect).

This table is from Mather and Carstensen (2005).

For a general overview of research on emotional memory and aging, see:

Mather, M. (2004). Aging and emotional memory. In D. Reisberg and P. Hertel, (Eds.) Memory and Emotion. NY: Oxford University Press, 272-307.


(PDFs and other links available here)

Charles, S. T., Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2003). Aging and emotional memory: The forgettable nature of negative images for older adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 132, 310-324.

Kennedy, Q., Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2004). The role of motivation in the age-related positivity effect in autobiographical memory. Psychological Science, 15, 208-214.

Knight, M., Seymour, T. L., Gaunt, J. T., Baker, C., Nesmith, K., & Mather, M. (2007). Aging and goal-directed emotional attention: Distraction reverses emotional biases. Emotion, 7, 705-714.

Mather, M. (in press). Why memories may become more positive with age. In B. Uttl, N. Ohta, & A. L. Siegenthaler (Eds.), Memory and Emotion: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Blackwell Publishing.

Mather, M., Canli, T., English, T., Whitfield, S., Wais, P., Ochsner, K., Gabrieli, J. D. E., Carstensen, L. L. (2004). Amygdala responses to emotionally valenced stimuli in older and younger adults. Psychological Science, 15, 259-263.

Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2005). Aging and motivated cognition: The positivity effect in attention and memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 496-502.

Mather, M., & Johnson, M. K. (2003). Affective review and schema reliance in memory in older and younger adults. American Journal of Psychology, 116, 169-189.

Mather, M., & Knight, M. (2005). Goal-directed memory: The role of cognitive control in older adults' emotional memory. Psychology and Aging, 20, 554-570.

Mather, M., & Knight, M. (2006). Angry faces get noticed quickly: Threat detection is not impaired among older adults. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 61, P54-57.

Mather, M., Knight, M., & McCaffrey, M. (2005). The allure of the alignable: Younger and older adults' false memories of choice features. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 134, 38-51.

A few recent papers on emotion, cognition and aging by other researchers:
(plus there are many more not listed here!)

See the special December 2005 issue of Psychology and Aging for a collection of articles on emotion-cognition interactions in the aging mind.

Isaacowitz, D. M., Wadlinger, H. A., Goren, D., Wilson, H. R. (2006). Selective preference in visual fixation away from negative images in old age? An eye-tracking study. Psychology and Aging, 21, 40-48.

Kensinger, E. A., Piguet, O., Krendl, A. C., & Corkin, S. (2005). Memory for contextual details: Effects of emotion and aging. Psychology and Aging, 20, 241-250.

May, C. P., Rahhal, T., Berry, E. M., Leighton, E. A. (2005). Aging, source memory, and emotion. Psychology and Aging, 20, 571-578.

Mikels, J. A., Larkin, G. R., Reuter-Lorenz, P. A., & Carstensen, L. L. (2005). Divergent trajectories in the aging mind: Changes in working memory for affective versus visual information with age. Psychology and Aging, 20, 542-553.

Schulkind, M. D., & Woldorf, G. M. (2005). Emotional organization of autobiographical memory. Memory & Cognition, 33, 1025-1035.

Williams, L. M., Brown, K. J., Palmer, D., Liddell, B. L., Kemp, A. H., Olivieri, G., Peduto, A., & Gordon, E. (2006). The mellow years?: Neural basis of improving emotional stability over age. The Journal of Neuroscience, 26, 6422-6430. See related Science News article.

Williams, P., & Drolet, A. (2005). Age-related differences in responses to emotional advertisements. Journal of Consumer Research, 32, 343-354.

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