Home > Aging > Are You Really Remembering It as All Sunshine and Rainbows? The Positivity Effect in Cognitive Aging 

Are You Really Remembering It as All Sunshine and Rainbows? The Positivity Effect in Cognitive Aging 

In a phone conversation with my mom following our family’s week-long trip to Sebago Lake this past summer, my grandma thanked my family for inviting her along for “the most wonderful week.” When my mom recounted this interaction to me, I couldn’t help but wonder whether my grandma had actually had such a “wonderful” week. After all, the vacation did not really go as planned: my brother left for Colby hall staff duties after only a day; I spent the bulk of the week alternating between doing remote internship work and sleeping to recover from my hectic summer job; my dad worked for almost the entire week, so we only saw him at meals; and, for the cherry on top, my grandma had recently suffered a severe compression fracture in her back that had left her in pain and fairly immobile. 

My grandma and me, circa 2017. She is the greatest!

It’s very possible that my grandma was just grateful for a week in close geographical proximity to my family, especially given she had been a fairly long drive away from us, cooped up inside with a broken back until right before the trip (she moved up near my family home a few weeks before our vacation). However, it is also possible that my grandma was actually remembering our trip in a positive way – maybe even in a more positive way than she had experienced it. Although I’ll never know which is true, my grandma may have been exhibiting the positivity effect in that phone conversation with my mom.

By “positivity effect,” I am referring to the finding in cognitive aging research that older adults are biased toward remembering and paying attention to positive information over negative information. For this blog post, I will discuss the positivity effect in the context of memory research. Let me provide a few examples of this phenomenon:  

The positivity effect influences older adults’ recall accuracy and familiarity for positive information. Mather and Carstensen (2005) tested older and younger participants’ memory for various images. Whereas younger adults’ recall performance was similar for positive and negative images (visit page 499 if you’re interested in seeing example stimuli), older adults recalled significantly more positive images relative to the other types of presented pictures. In a different study, Spaniol & Voss (2008) found no difference between older adults’ memory accuracy for positive and negative stimuli; however, older participants reported higher levels of familiarity for – or recognition of the stimulus without necessarily remembering details about it – positive stimuli relative to negative ones (whereas younger adults did not), revealing that the memory positivity effect need not only be demonstrated through memory accuracy levels. Put differently, these research studies suggest that older adults’ positivity bias manifests both in their increased memory for positive stimuli over negative stimuli AND their increased feeling of having previously seen positive stimuli relative to negative ones.

Older adults remember fewer details of their angry memories than younger adults, demonstrating the positivity effect in negative memories. (https://sayingimages.com/mad-meme/)

Outside of the lab, older adults tend to positively distort their autobiographical memories, or memories for personally experienced events. This positive distortion may help explain my grandma’s surprisingly happy recollection of our family’s Maine vacation in August (Kennedy et al., 2004).

Older adults’ positivity effect can also manifest in the remembering of upsetting memories in a less intensely negative way than younger adults might. Uzer and Gulgoz (2015) ran an experiment in which they looked at the influence of different types of emotional stimuli (e.g., happy, sad, and angry faces) on the way in which older and younger participants remembered them. Specifically, the researchers assessed how detailed older and younger people’s angry memories were: whereas younger participants’ angry memories were detailed, the older adults remembered fewer details of angry memories (Uzer & Gulgoz, 2015). In other words, older participants’ angry memories were much less vivid than younger participants’, which reveals the positivity bias.

Ok, ok… Now that I’ve established evidence for the positivity effect in memory, let’s discuss psychologists’ theorized reasons for this effect. Why do older adults show this memory bias for positive stimuli? Is it just another form of cognitive decline, maybe in the form of worse memory for negative events? I mean, after all, people say that older adulthood is characterized by dramatic cognitive decline, so maybe the positivity effect is just a slightly happier manifestation of that. Right?

Does cognition just go downhill in old age? (https://i.thechive.com/submission/60416934907adc253e0d34e3)


Although there may not be a single explanation for the positivity effect that psychologists have settled on, the two main theories I came across in my research seem fairly positive (yikes, no pun intended – I swear that was unintentional). Let me elaborate: 

Emotional regulation tends to improve over the course of one’s lifetime. (https://imgflip.com/i/4znzi5)

One theory is that older adults’ positivity effect is due to enhanced emotional regulation abilities across the lifespan. By “emotional regulation,” I mean that older adults are better at managing negative emotions than younger adults (Mather & Carstensen, 2005). For instance, researchers have suggested that, relative to younger adults, older adults’ highly negative emotions dissipate more quickly than their highly positive ones. Additionally, older adults are better at positive reappraisal – the reconceptualization of a negative experience in a more positive way (e.g., doing poorly on a test and viewing it as a learning experience rather than a personal failure) – than younger adults, which means they can more effectively change and suppress their negative emotions (e.g., Ikier & Duman, 2020). So, considering this in light of the positivity effect, it’s possible that older adults’ stronger emotional regulation leads them to dwell less on negative memories and information than younger adults, which may actually cause them to favor positive memories. 

In addition to theories regarding older adults’ improved emotional regulation, lifespan development researchers have suggested a second explanation for the positivity effect: the socioemotional selectivity theory, or the idea that older and younger adults have different goals due to their unique perspectives on time (Carstensen et al., 1999). Whereas younger adults are more focused on process-oriented goals and future self-betterment, older adults’ awareness of their shrinking time horizons cause them to prioritize activities, people, and memories that enhance their well-being (e.g., Carstensen & DeLiema, 2018).  In other words, older adults’ positivity effect may be developmentally adaptive in that it allows them to spend their later years focused on the good in their lives and in the world around them.

You might be wondering: ok, so… is this positivity effect outside of older adults’ control? In other words, is it an automatic process

Actually, research suggests that the positivity effect requires cognitive control. By “cognitive control,” I am referring to the conscious effort and attention individuals must put into a task (in this case, favoring positive stimuli over negative information). For instance, when the stakes are high, or when older and younger adults are given specific encoding instructions in memory tests (e.g., told to prioritize accuracy over emotional content), older adults are much less likely to show a positivity effect (Kennedy et al., 2004). Furthermore, the positivity effect is eliminated in divided attention tasks (tasks in which individuals must split their attention and energy between two activities or types of information; e.g., cooking while talking on the phone), and likewise, individuals with Alzheimer’s (a disease characterized by low levels of cognitive control) do not exhibit positivity biases (Tomaszczyk & Fernandes, 2013; Reed & Carstensen, 2012). Thus, it seems like older adults’ exhibition of this cognitive bias requires – at least some – intact cognitive control mechanisms. 

​​To tie this all together: I have just explained the positivity effect in older adults’ memory, highlighted two explanations that cognitive psychologists provide to account for this phenomenon (emotional regulation and the socioemotional selectivity theory), and underscored the controlled nature of this cognitive bias.  

Let’s get to the point.

Ok… so, what’s the point? Why does all of this matter? Why did I just dedicate an entire blog post to describing a cognitive psychology finding that you’re (maybe – I should never assume!) never going to think about again? 

I strongly believe that positivity effect research has a few important implications – specifically, two big ideas that, if nothing else, I would love for you to take away from this blog post. 

1.) The cognitive changes that manifest toward the end of the lifespan are not purely forms of decline. Like I mentioned earlier, the positivity effect is not automatic, and is it not always at play (e.g., when older individuals are focused on specific objectives or under divided attention). That being said – given its reliance on intact cognitive control mechanisms –  the situations in which the positivity effect is at play may highlight healthy older adults’ preserved cognitive abilities. Furthermore, the positivity effect can actually be beneficial for older individuals’ physical health and mood (Carstensen & DeLiema, 2018; Kennedy et al., 2004). So, let’s not immediately assume that this cognitive bias is an inevitable consequence of cognitive decline across the lifespan; rather, let’s see it as a form of strength and appreciate its beneficial effect on older adults’ lives. 

2.) Certain cognitive changes across the lifespan make sense developmentally. Returning to the socioemotional selectivity theory that I highlighted earlier, older adults’ preference for positive stimuli and memories relative to negative ones might be of benefit toward the end of their lifespans, during which they are spending a great deal of time reflecting back on the lives they’ve lived – and, hopefully, doing so in a way that makes them feel at peace. Again, aging is not just a period of decline and regression; it can be a unique developmental stage in and of itself.   

Going back to my initial story about my grandma’s seemingly “rosy recollection” of our family vacation in August, I will never be certain that it was due to the positivity effect, but it’s definitely possible. Regardless, I’m not going to question my grandma’s positively skewed – at least in my eyes – memory of our Maine vacation. I just hope that she continues to have positive memories of her life experiences (especially those she shares with my family) –– even if she’s remembering them in a more positive way than they were actually experienced in the moment.  

My grandma and me, circa 2006. 🙂


Carstensen, L. L., & DeLiema, M. (2018). The positivity effect: A negativity bias in youth fades with age. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 19, 7-12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2017.07.009

Carstensen, L. L., Isaacowitz, D. M., and Charles, S. T. (1999). Taking time seriously: a theory of socioemotional selectivity. Am. Psychol. 54, 165–181. https://doi.org/10.1037//0003-066x.54.3.165

Ikier, S., & Duman, Ç. (2022). The happiest and the saddest autobiographical memories and aging. Current Psychology, 41, 4907-4919. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-020-00993-w

Kennedy, Q., Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2004). The role of motivation in the age-related positivity effect in autobiographical memory. Psychological Science, 15(3), 208–214. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.01503011.x

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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2005.08.005 

Ready, R. (2016, May 9). Older brains wired for positivity. Psychology Today. Retrieved November 11, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-quality-life/201605/older-brains-wired-positivity

Reed, A. E., & Carstensen, L. L. (2012, September 27). The theory behind the age-related positivity effect. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00339

Spaniol, J., & Voss, A. (2008). Aging and emotional memory: Cognitive mechanisms underlying the positivity effect. Psychology and Aging, 23(4), 859-872. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0014218 

Tomaszczyk, J. C., & Fernandes, M. A. (2013). A positivity effect in older adults’ memorability judgments of pictures. Experimental Aging Research, 39(3), 254-274. https://doi.org/10.1080/0361073X.2013.779178

Uzer, T., & Gulgoz, S. (2015). Socioemotional selectivity in older adults: Evidence from the subjective experience of angry memories. Memory, 23(6), 888-900. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2014.936877

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