The “positivity effect” refers to an age-related trend that favors positive over negative stimuli in cognitive processing. Relative to their younger counterparts, older people attend to and remember more positive than negative information. Since the effect was initially identified and the conceptual basis articulated (Mather and Carstensen, 2005) scores of independent replications and related findings have appeared in the literature. Over the same period, a number of investigations have failed to observe age differences in the cognitive processing of emotional material. When findings are considered in theoretical context, a reliable pattern of evidence emerges that helps to refine conceptual tenets. In this article we articulate the operational definition and theoretical foundations of the positivity effect and review the empirical evidence based on studies of visual attention, memory, decision making, and neural activation. We conclude with a discussion of future research directions with emphasis on the conditions where a focus on positive information may benefit and/or impair cognitive performance in older people.
Keywords: positivity effect, aging, emotion regulation, motivation, attention, memory
Citation: Reed AE and Carstensen LL (2012) The theory behind the age-related positivity effect. Front. Psychology 3:339. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00339
Received: 18 May 2012; Accepted: 23 August 2012;
Published online: 27 September 2012.
Edited by:Mara Mather, University of Southern California, USA
Reviewed by:Lynden Miles, University of Aberdeen, UK
Copyright: © 2012 Reed and Carstensen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and subject to any copyright notices concerning any third-party graphics etc.
*Correspondence: Andrew E. Reed, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org