Faculty Articles

Age differences in autobiographical memories of negative events

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International Journal of Aging and Human Development





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This study examined whether older adults recollect autobiographical memories of negative events so as to minimize unpleasant emotions to a greater extent than do younger adults. A sample of healthy older adults (N = 126) and younger adults (N = 119) completed the Autobiographical Memory Questionnaire and a measure of PTSD symptoms in response to their most negative recalled event. Results supported the hypothesis that older adults rated their negative memories as having: 1) less of a sense of traveling back to the time the event occurred, 2) less associated visceral emotional reactions, 3) fewer associated negative emotions, and 4) fewer PTSD symptoms, all relative to younger adults. In addition, older adults exhibited higher ratings of belief in accuracy, higher ratings that the memory comes as a coherent story, and more associated positive emotions, again all relative to younger adults. After controlling for differences between the types of events younger and older adults reported and how long ago the event occurred, the above age differences remained statistically significant, though the effect sizes were attenuated in some cases. These results are consistent in their support for the positivity effect, and suggest that older adults modify their recollections of negative events in a manner that is emotionally adaptive for them.

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