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The positivity effect pertains to the tendency of people, when evaluating the causes of the behaviors of a person they like or prefer, to attribute the person's inherent disposition as the cause of their positive behaviors and the situations surrounding them as the cause of their negative behaviors. The positivity effect is the inverse of the negativity effect, which is found when people evaluate the causes of the behaviors of a person they dislike. Both effects are attributional biases.
Studies have found that older adults are more likely than younger adults to pay attention to positive than negative stimuli (as assessed by the dot-probe paradigm and eye-tracking methods).
The term positivity effect also refers to age differences in emotional attention and memory. As people get older, they experience fewer negative emotions and they tend to look to the past in a positive light. In addition, compared with younger adults' memories, older adults' memories are more likely to consist of positive than negative information and more likely to be distorted in a positive direction. This version of the positivity effect was coined by Laura L. Carstensen's research team. There is a debate about the cross-cultural generalizability of the aging-related positivity effect, with some evidence for different types of emotional processing among Americans as compared to Japanese.
One theory of the positivity effect in older adults' memories is that it is produced by cognitive control mechanisms that improve and decrease negative information due to older adults' greater focus on emotional regulation. Research shows an age-related reversal in the valence of information processed within the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). In younger adults, more MPFC activity was found in the presence of negative stimuli compared to positive stimuli whereas in older adults this was reversed.
However, the positivity effect may be different for stimuli processed automatically (pictures) and stimuli processed in a more controlled manner (words). Compared to words, pictures tend to be processed more rapidly and they engage emotion processing centres earlier. Automatic stimuli are processed in the amygdala and dorsal MPFC, whereas controlled stimuli are processed in the temporal pole and ventral MPFC. Compared to younger adults, older adults showed less amygdala activation and more MPFC activation for negative than positive pictures. Increased motivation to regulate emotion leads older adults to actively engage the mPFC differently from younger adults, which in turn yields diverging amygdala activation patterns. The opposite pattern was observed for words. Although older adults showed a positivity effect in memory for words, they did not display one for pictures. Thus, the positivity effect may arise from ageing differences in MPFC use during encoding.
References in popular culture
Paul McCartney hints at the positivity effect in his song You Tell Me, in which he speaks of how, in his old age, distant memories seem predominantly positive, for instance remembering summers in which it "never rained".
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- List of papers related to aging and positivity effect