What could go wrong? No evidence of an age-related positivity effect when evaluating outcomes of risky activities.

The age-related positivity effect—a preference for processing positive stimuli over negative stimuli—is posited by socioemotional selectivity theory to reflect a focus on emotional gratification in older age. Yet, the positivity effect has been investigated with stimuli, such as photographs of faces and visual scenes, that have little (to no) association with real-life consequences. Decisions that involve risk require evaluating valenced information that is associated with positive and negative possible outcomes. Older adults take fewer risks than younger adults when their decisions have possible negative consequences. The current research investigated whether the age-related positivity effect extends to cognitive processing of valenced information that is association with real-life consequences. In Experiment 1, participants generated possible outcomes of engaging in risky activities. In Experiment 2, participants identified as quickly as possible whether putative outcomes were relevant to risky activities. Diffusion model analysis was used to model the cognitive processes underlying age-related differences in processing of valenced information. In contrast with the age-related positivity effect, in Experiment 1, younger adults showed an initial focus on retrieving positive outcomes, which shifted to an initial focus on negative outcomes in older age. In Experiment 2, younger adults were faster and more accurate to identify positive than negative outcomes of risky activities—a tendency that dissipated in older age. In conclusion, the age-related positivity effect may not extend to cognitive processing of valenced information that is associated with real-life consequences. It is speculated that while older adults may often prioritize emotional gratification, they possess a repertoire of goals and switch between goals according to the nature of their task. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved)