"The study suggests that the way individuals in late life process information enables them to stay on an even emotional keel and feel good," explained lead author, psychologist Derek M. Isaacowitz. "By focusing more on positive things and avoiding negative ones, older adults are able to maintain emotional resilience, which becomes acutely important in the face of dwindling time."
In a novel application, eye-tracking technology enabled the Brandeis research scientists to record the duration and location of the test subjects' gaze patterns as they looked at a series of synthetic faces portraying sadness, anger, fear and happiness, as well as a neutral facial image.
Interestingly, while the older participants (ages 57 to 84) preferred the happy faces and avoided the angry ones, the younger subjects (ages 18-21) showed only a preference for the fearful faces. This is consistent with other evidence suggesting young adults either show no preference or a slight preference toward the negative in their processing. All the participants were screened for cognitive ability, ruling out the possibility that the attentional preferences were prompted by general cognitive change with age.
This study builds on earlier research that suggests humans are continually monitoring time, assessing whether their future is open-ended or limited. When the future appears limited, individuals tend to focus on goals that make them feel good in the present.
"Contrary to conventional wisdom, which suggests that advancing age motivates people to dwell on negative feelings, just the opposite seems to be the case, at least in many elderly," said Isaacowitz. "This is naturally very good news and brings us that much closer to understanding the dynamic relationship between cognition, emotion and aging."