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Emotion (Washington, D.C.)

Distract or reappraise? Age-related differences in emotion-regulation choice.


PMID 25961143

Abstract

Does aging impact strategy choice with regard to regulating negative emotions? Based on the assumption that older adults are highly motivated to quickly defuse negative states, we predicted that older adults, relative to young adults, would show an increased preference for distraction (a cognitive disengagement strategy) over reappraisal (a cognitive engagement strategy) in the face of negative material. A stronger preference for distraction, in turn, should be associated with higher affective well-being at older ages, as it helps to avoid high physiological arousal. Young (19-28 years, n = 38) and older (65-75 years, n = 39) adults completed a laboratory task of emotion-regulation choice in which they viewed negative pictures of high and low intensity and chose between distraction and reappraisal to regulate their emotional response. Confirming predictions, age was associated with an increased preference to choose distraction over reappraisal. Among older but not young adults, the relative preference for distraction to reappraisal predicted higher state-affective well-being. In addition, across age groups, the preference for distraction over reappraisal was positively predicted by stimulus intensity and negatively by cognitive resources. Findings support the notion of an age-related shift toward disengagement strategies to regulate negative emotions, which maps onto older adults' prohedonic orientation and holds affective benefits.