February 7, 2005
Memory research sheds light on why older
adults accentuate the positive
By Jennifer McNulty
Age-related differences appear to affect the way adults make
and remember their choices in life, suggesting that older adults
accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative in
their memories, according to research published in the
current issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Mara Mather's research indicates that age-related changes
appear to influence decision making in ways that focus on
positive emotional outcomes.
Photo: Jennifer McNulty
Psychologists at UCSC have learned that adults of all ages
tend to fill in the gaps when recalling decisions
of the past, shedding light on the mysteries of memory distortion.
But as people age, they rely more heavily on a comparison process
that favors positive emotional outcomes, said lead researcher
Mara Mather, an associate professor of psychology at UCSC.
The results add a twist to our understanding of how people
remember things that werent there, said Mather,
who coauthored the paper with UCSC graduate student Marisa Knight
and then-undergraduate Michael McCaffrey, who graduated in 2003.
The way we remember one option is shaped by what we know
of the other options, and the comparison process changes as
People are always surprised by how malleable memory is,
but researchers have really only scratched the surface,
Mathers research used studies of decision making to glean
insight into how inaccurate memories are generated. The first
study explored how adults make decisions when two options lack
directly comparable features. For example, when deciding between
rental apartments, prospective tenants compare features such
as rent, square footage, and natural light. But the comparison
is problematic when more is known about one option than the
otherApartment A has hardwood floors, for example, but
nothing is known about the flooring in Apartment B.
Its a problem in decision making, because people
are driven to make decisions by comparing feature-by-feature,
said Mather, who wanted to know how people cognitively cope
with the gaps.
It turns out that adults of all ages tend to falsely fill in
the gaps and then remember circumstances as being more
alignable than they were. For instance, in the rental
example, the tenant might fill in the gap by inferring
that Apartment B had carpets and go on to recall that incorrect
People remember features that can be compared more than
those that cant be aligned, and they make inferences that
fill in the blanks and that contrast with the other information,
she said. Alignability helps memory but also leads to
In another experiment, Mather explored emotions powerful
impact on memory and found that older adults with high cognitive
functioning use a decision-making strategy that generates more
positive emotional outcomes.
These older adults tend to favor the feature-by-feature decision-making
process because it guards against regret. By contrast, younger
adults are more likely to employ what psychologists call the
whole option strategy, in which they consider both
the negative and positive aspects of each option before examining
the next option. Young people are trying to learn as much
as they can about each option, while older people are more focused
on feeling good about their choices, said Mather.
Mather found that in general, adults aged 65 to 80 tend to
initially ignore negative features--and to remember them less--than
younger adults. Elders also remember more positive features
than negative, compared to younger adults, she said.
Researchers previously have attributed most age differences
to cognitive decline, said Mather. But in this study, Mathers
team tested older adults for their cognitive abilities, and
those with the best performance on tests of working memory and
other complex tasks were most likely to use different strategies
than the younger adults.
This pattern suggests that younger and older adults'
comparison processes are influenced by different goals,"
she said. "Even when older adults show little or no signs
of cognitive decline, they make decisions differently than younger
adults, in ways that should help them avoid regret."
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