Positivity effect

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In psychology and cognitive science, the positivity effect is a term given to three different phenomena. It is the ability to constructively analyze a situation where the desired results are not achieved; but still obtain positive feedback which assists our future progression. When considering people we like (including ourselves), we tend to make situational attributions about their negative behaviors and dis-positional attributions about their positive behaviors. We probably do the reverse for people we do not like. This may well be because of the dissonance between liking a person and seeing them behave negatively. example: If my friend hits someone, I will tell him that the other guy deserved it or that he had to defend himself.

In attribution[edit]

Main article: Selective perception

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.

In perception[edit]

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). However, the effect also differs across cultures. For example, Hong Kong Chinese looked away from happy stimuli and more towards fearful stimuli,[1] and the difference in attention pattern was related to differences in self-construal.[2] On online social networks like Twitter, users prefer to share positive news, and are emotionally affected by positive news more than twice than by negative news.[3][4]

In recall[edit]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

Hypothesized causes[edit]

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.[8] 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.[citation needed]

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.[9] 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.[10]

In popular culture[edit]

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".


The positivity effect was first identified when investigating socioemotional selectivity theory which is a life span theory of motivation.[when?][by whom?][11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fung, H. H.; Lu, A. Y.; Goren, D.; Isaacowitz, D. M.; Wadlinger; Wilson, H. R. (2008). "Age-related positivity enhancement is not universal: older Chinese look away from positive stimuli". Psychology and Aging 23 (2): 440–6. doi:10.1037/0882-7974.23.2.440. 
  2. ^ Fung, H. H.; Isaacowitz, D. M.; Lu, A. Y.; Li, T. (2010). "Interdependent self-construal moderates the age-related negativity reduction effect in memory and visual attention". Psychology and Aging 25 (2): 321–9. doi:10.1037/a0019079. 
  3. ^ E Ferrara & Z Yang (2015). "Measuring Emotional Contagion in Social Media". PLoS ONE 10 (1): e0142390. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0142390. 
  4. ^ E Ferrara & Z Yang (2015). "Quantifying the effect of sentiment on information diffusion in social media". Peer J Computer Science 1: e26. doi:10.7717/peerj-cs.26. 
  5. ^ Aging and motivated cognition:the positivity effect in attention and memory. Science, October, 2005.
  6. ^ The Influence of a Sense of Time on Human Development. Science, June 30, 2006.
  7. ^ Grossmann, Igor; Karasawa, Mayumi; Kan, Chiemi; Kitayama, Shinobu (2014). "A cultural perspective on emotional experiences across the life span.". Emotion 14: 679–92. doi:10.1037/a0036041. PMID 24749641. 
  8. ^ Mather, M.; Carstensen, L. L. (2005). "Aging and motivated cognition: the positivity effect in attention and memory". Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9 (10): 496–502. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2005.08.005. PMID 16154382. 
  9. ^ St; Jacques, P.; Dolcos, F.; Cabeza, R. (2010). "Effects of aging on functional connectivity of the amygdala during negative evaluation: a network analysis of fMRI data". Neurobiology of Aging 31 (2): 315–27. doi:10.1097/00001504-200205000-00011. 
  10. ^ Leclerc, C.; Kensinger, E. (2011). "Neural processing of emotional pictures and words: A comparison of young and older adults". Developmental Neuropsychology 36 (4): 519–538. doi:10.1080/87565641.2010.549864. 
  11. ^ Reed, A.E.; Carstensen, L. L. (2012). "The Theory Behind the Age-Related Positivity Effect". Front Psychol 3: 339. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00339. PMC 3459016. PMID 23060825. 


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