Negative information is less distracting to older adults than younger adults

Briana Kennedy is a postdoctoral scholar in the Emotion & Cognition Lab at USC. She, Ringo Huang, and Mara Mather recently published a manuscript outlining their recent findings; they found that compared to younger adults, older adults are less distracted by negative information, despite both younger and older adults being distracted by positive information. The study is currently in press in Emotion.

Negative information is less distracting to older adults than younger adults

When we think about cognitive changes with age, we normally think about changes in memory or the way we make decisions. But our attention changes with age, too. And a recent study suggests that the way our attention is distracted by emotion differs between younger and older adults – but probably not in the way you’d expect.

We found that older adults were less distracted by negative emotional information compared to younger adults, even though both younger and older adults were distracted by positive information. We think this can tell us a lot about how to communicate with members of the community, may eventually help identify strategies that other people can use to overcome negative experiences, and teach us more about how our attention changes with age.

Attention is a limited resource

At any given moment, things are happening in our environment that we aren’t noticing because there is simply too much information to pick up on. The reason that this isn’t a very big problem is because our attention can usually prioritize the most important information for us. For example, we can focus on the roadway while we’re driving and brake when the car in front of us puts its brake-lights on.

Usually, our attention prioritizes information that matches our current goals or is particularly attention-grabbing. As it turns out, our attention also prioritizes information that is especially emotional. And this priority for emotion can be so great that it can keep us from seeing other things that we are actively looking for. That is – emotion can distract us. For example, if we saw a sexual or gruesome scene on a billboard on the side of the freeway, we might get distracted from seeing the brake-lights on the car in front of us.

Distraction by emotion

One way to test how much people are distracted by emotion is to show them emotional pictures while they are trying to complete a task. This type of test produces an effect known as emotion-induced blindness. In a typical emotion-induced blindness experiment, many pictures flash quickly, one at a time, at a rate of ten images per second, on a computer screen. Participants have a simple job: look for the one picture that is rotated to the left or the right, and then report the direction it was rotated. Even though the pictures are flashing very quickly, participants are usually very good at reporting the direction of the one rotated picture. But when an emotional picture comes before the rotated picture, participants have difficulty reporting the direction of the rotated picture. Emotion-induced blindness refers to this lack of ability to notice a task-relevant picture that appears soon after something emotional.

Older adults are less distracted by negative images than younger adults

Until now, emotion-induced blindness was only observed in younger adults and never tested in older adults. But we were interested in whether this phenomenon might change as people get older, because of our and others’ work that indicates that emotional processing changes with age. We found that both younger and older adults were distracted by emotionally positive images, but compared to younger adults, older adults were less distracted by emotionally negative images. These results suggest that older adults filter negative information differently than younger adults – their attention doesn’t prioritize negative images as much as the younger adults’ attention does, even though younger and older adults similarly prioritize positive images.

Age differences in the priority for emotion: the positivity effect

Our findings are consistent with previous findings that older adults tend to prioritize positive information and deprioritize negative information compared to younger adults. Known as the “positivity effect,” this is often found when participants must remember emotional images – compared to younger adults, older adults tend to remember positive images better and negative images worse.

One prominent theory proposes that the positivity effect represents a shift in emotional priorities due to a difference in the perspective of time: older adults view their time left in life as limited, so they no longer have to learn from negative experiences and instead optimize positive experiences. A central part of this theory is that older adults maintain a chronic goal of prioritizing positive and deprioritizing negative information.

The positivity effect in early attention and its implications

What makes our new findings striking is that we found evidence of the positivity effect in such early attention – older and younger adults were distracted differently by the same negative images that appeared only a fraction of a second before the rotated image they were looking for. This means that older adults seem to view their world with a filter that cares less about negative information than younger adults – to the point that without even having time to think and reflect about what they are seeing, they give less attention to it.

We think these results carry important implications. Consider communicating information throughout a community. Whereas younger adults may give special attention to public service announcements or posted information that has a negative spin, older adults may not be attracted to the same information and instead reserve their prioritized attention for something more positive. Older adults may also be able to teach us how to pay less attention to negative information, which could be helpful to develop strategies to aid people living with anxiety or PTSD. Moreover, by understanding how older adults change their priority for emotion, we may better understand the way the brain – particularly our attention – changes with age.


This study was funded by the National Institute on Aging; grant numbers RO1AG025340 and F32AG057162.