As People Age, Optimism Bias Increases


Increasing age usually heralds an array of negative life events including bereavement, reduced social networks, a decline in physical health and cognitive function, together with an inevitable time horizon foreshortening (Rowe & Kahn, 1987; Hedden & Gabrieli, 2004). Viewed from the perspective of young adulthood, a reasonable inference might be that this should portend an increasing pessimism. Yet older adults have higher levels of emotional well-being than their younger counterparts, including a decline in their experience of negative emotions (Blanchflower & Oswald, 2008; Carstensen et al. 2011; Stone et al. 2010).

In general, many studies show an age-related ‘positivity effect’ on cognitive processing (for reviews, see Mather & Carstensen, 2005; Isaacowitz & Blanchard- Fields, 2012). For example, in comparison to their younger counterparts, older adults remember faces displaying positive emotions more than those displaying negative emotions (Charles et al. 2003), have less rich autobiographical memory for negative events (Comblain et al. 2005) and experience less negative arousal when anticipating monetary loss (Samanez- Larkin et al. 2007). Such findings have been interpreted within the framework of socio-emotional selectivity theory, whereby changing time horizons may lead to modification and prioritization of emotionally relevant goals (Carstensen et al. 1999; Charles & Carstensen, 2010). An alternative account suggests that positivity may arise serendipitously as a consequence of selective age-related neurodegeneration (Cacioppo et al. 2011).

Few studies have addressed the effect of age on optimism and the results are inconsistent. Optimism has been defined as the tendency to overestimate future positive events and underestimate future negative events (Weinstein, 1980). One such study showed that older adults had a more optimistic style when explaining life events (Isaacowitz, 2005) whereas another found that younger, rather than older, adults had a more optimistic outlook about the future (Lachman et al. 2008). A series of studies have investigated optimism in young individuals, identifying an asymmetry whereby beliefs about future negative events are updated more in response to better than expected (‘desirable’) information than to worse than expected (‘undesirable’) information (Sharot et al. 2011, 2012a,b).

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