The age-related positivity effect: forgetting the negative and/or remembering the positive? An inter-task study

Geriatr Psychol Neuropsychiatr Vieil. 2021 Sep 27. doi: 10.1684/pnv.2021.0944. Online ahead of print.


A growing number of studies have shown that when compared to younger adults, older adults are better at recalling positive information than negative information. However, it is not yet clear whether this age-related positivity effect relies on a greater ability to recall positive information or on a decreased ability to recall negative information. We therefore aimed to study the specific mechanisms underlying the age-related positivity effect using different memory tasks. We used an emotional word memory paradigm including immediate free recall, recognition, and delayed free recall tasks. Forty-five young adults (m = 20.0 years) and 45 older adults (m = 69.2 years) participated, all of whom were native French speakers. Thirty-six French low-arousal words (12 positve, 12, negative, 12 neutral) were selected from an emotional lexical database (Gobin et al. 2017) and divided into three equal groups of positive, neutral and negative terms. For the recognition task, 36 new words were selected. The results show that the age-related positivity effect specifically depended on a decrease in negativity preference (i.e., the comparison between negative and neutral words) in older adults, in comparison with younger adults, both in the immediate and delayed free recall tasks. In these tasks, younger adults recalled more negative than neutral words, whereas there was no difference in older adults. During the recognition task, no age-related positivity effect was observed. The results also show that, for the immediate recall task, the greater the memory ability of older adults, the lower their negativity preference. This correlation was not significant in the delayed recall task. These results suggest that, when compared with younger adults, older adults disengage from processing negative words that require costly cognitive processes. A low negativity preference indicates that memory abilities are well-maintained. The results are discussed within the framework of socio-emotional selectivity theory.

Keywords: ageing; emotion; memory; positivity effect.