Remembering Just the Good Times

Like fine wine and good cheese, the things we remember get better with age, according to new research out of California. Older adults recalled fewer negative images than younger adults in a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

By Anne Becker, published June 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Like fine wine and good cheese, the things we remember get better with age, according to new research out of California. Older adults recalled fewer negative images than younger adults in a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Knowing that older individuals tend to regulate their emotions more effectively than do their younger counterparts, a group of psychologists set out to see how memory affected this phenomenon.

They showed participants in three age groups--18-29, 41-53 and 65-80--three sets of images: positive, negative and neutral. Then they tested the participants on their recall and recognition of the images.

Older adults recalled and recognized fewer negative images relative to positive and neutral ones. Both younger and older participants spent more time viewing the negative images, but only the younger group remembered them better.

These findings support the "socio-emotional selectivity" theory that as people become more aware of their limited time they have left to live, they direct their attention to positive thoughts and memories, says lead researcher Susan Turk Charles, Ph.D., of the University of California at Irvine.

"Older adults report they're not angry or upset when younger people report that all the time. It's not because negative things don't happen to older adults, it's that they're not dwelling on them," Charles says.

Physiology may have also affected the older adults' positive recall: research showed that the amygdala --which plays a significant role in emotional behavior in older adults' brains--was activated equally by positive and negative images, whereas younger adults' brains were activated more by negative images.