Older People More Optimistic

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Older adults are more likely to see the glass as half full than half empty, a new study finds.

Researchers showed 20 young adults, aged 19 to 22, a series of positive, neutral and negative images like chocolate ice cream, an electrical outlet and a dead animal, respectively. A separate group of 20 older adults, aged 56 to 81, were shown the same images.

Electrodes on the participants’ heads recorded brain activity as they looked at the images. The degree by which brain activity increased determined how responsive each individual was to negative information.

Older adults were less responsive to the unpleasant images.

“As a group, older adults are less likely to be depressed and less affected by negative or unpleasant information,” said Stacey Wood, a neuropsychologist from Scripps College in Claremont , Calif. who headed up the study.

In decision making, Wood explained, people weigh losses twice as heavily as gains. “For instance, when making choices between rounds of gambling, a loss of $100 is weighed twice as heavily as a gain of $100, a phenomenon known as loss aversion. Overall, it seems that humans are hard-wired to pay more attention to negative information,” she said.

This tendency decreases as one ages, Wood and her co-author, Michael Kisley of University of Colorado , wrote in a recent issue of the journal Psychology and Aging. It is unclear why our elders are more likely to view the world through rose-colored glasses. It might have to do with the experiences they gain or the biological changes that occur as they age.

“We were looking at how people were processing these images half a second after they saw them so it’s not so much an ability to say ‘Oh I’ve seen this before,’” Wood told LiveScience. “It seems like there’s some very basic changes in how our brain is perceiving negative images to begin with.”

A study in 2005 found that older people see "the big picture" better. Other research has shown that optimists live longer.

Sara Goudarzi
Sara Goudarzi is a Brooklyn writer and poet and covers all that piques her curiosity, from cosmology to climate change to the intersection of art and science. Sara holds an M.A. from New York University, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and an M.S. from Rutgers University. She teaches writing at NYU and is at work on a first novel in which literature is garnished with science.