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Older Adults' Memories Stress the Positive

To avoid regret, many dismiss negative aspects of important choices

MONDAY, Feb. 14, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- As years go by, adult choices and memories about those choices are increasingly filtered through rose-colored glasses that accentuate the positive while downplaying the negative, researchers conclude.

That's especially true whenever older adults reflect on important choices they've made, according to researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz. They found that, as people age, they seem to rely more on a comparison process that emphasizes positive emotional outcomes over negative ones. This process may be driven by a desire among older individuals to avoid feeling regret.

"The results add a twist to our understanding of how people remember things that weren't there. The way we remember one option is shaped by what we know of other options, and the comparison process changes as we age," lead researcher Mara Mather, an associate professor of psychology, said in a prepared statement.

One study found that older adults were more likely to use more emotions-based recall mechanisms that tend to guard against regret. In this type of system, individuals simply ignore or "fill in" gaps in knowledge regarding the negative aspects of a particular choice.

On the other hand, when asked to decide between two options, younger adults tended to weigh both the negative and positive aspects of each choice before they examine 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," Mather said.

In general, people aged 65 to 80 are more likely to initially ignore negative features and to have less memory of them than younger adults, the researchers found. Older adults were also more likely to remember good things about a particular choice, rather than any negative aspects, compared with younger adults.

Mather stressed these age-based differences aren't due to any decline in mental aptitude among older adults.

Instead, "younger and older adults' comparison processes are influenced by different goals. 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," he said.

The research appears in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about memory and aging.

SOURCE: University of California, Santa Cruz, news release, Feb.5 , 2005
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