Allard, E.S., & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2008). Are preferences in emotional processing affected by distraction? Examining the age-related positivity effect in visual fixation within a dual-task paradigm. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 15, 725-743.

Recent research has suggested that age-related positivity effects are eliminated under conditions of dual-task load (Knight et al., 2007; Mather & Knight, 2005), because the cognitive control resources necessary to enact such preferences are not available when individuals are distracted by competing information. We further examined how older adults’ emotional information processing preferences are affected by distracting information by utilizing a within-subjects dual-task measure. Younger and older adults viewed a series of positive, negative, and neutral images both in conditions of full and divided attention. Fixation preferences to valenced images were assessed through eye tracking. Regardless of whether images were viewed in full or divided attention conditions, older adults demonstrated a preference in their fixation for positive and neutral in comparison to negative images. These results provide evidence that older adults’ positive fixation preferences may not always necessitate full, cognitive control.

Fung, H.L., Isaacowitz, D.M., Lu, A.Y., Wadlinger, H.A., Goren, D. & Wilson, H.R. (2008). Age-related positivity enhancement is not universal: Older Chinese look away from positive stimuli. Psychology and Aging, 23, 440-446.

Socioemotional selectivity theory postulates that with age, people are motivated to derive emotional meaning from life, leading them to pay more attention to positive relative to negative/neutral stimuli. We argue that cultures that differ in what they consider to be emotionally meaningful may show this preference to different extents. Using eyetracking techniques, we compared visual attention toward emotional (happy, fearful, sad and angry) and neutral facial expressions among 46 younger and 57 older Hong Kong Chinese. In contrast to prior Western findings, older, but not younger Chinese, looked away from happy facial expressions, suggesting that they do not show attentional preferences toward positive stimuli.

Isaacowitz, D.M., Toner, K., Goren, D., & Wilson, H.R. (2008). Looking while unhappy: Mood congruent gaze in young adults, positive gaze in older adults. Psychological Science, 19, 848-853.

Recent findings that older adults gaze toward positively- and away from negatively-valenced stimuli have been interpreted as part of their attempts to achieve the goal of feeling good. However, the idea that gaze is used by older adults to regulate, rather than to simply reflect, mood is in contrast to evidence of mood-congruent processing in young adults; no study has directly linked age-related positive gaze preferences to mood regulation. In this study, older and younger adults in a range of moods viewed synthetic face pairs varying in valence as their gaze was tracked. Younger adults demonstrated mood-congruent gaze, looking more at positive faces when in a good mood and at negative faces when in a bad mood. Older adults displayed mood-incongruent positive gaze, looking toward positive and away from negative faces when in a bad mood, suggesting that older adults use gaze not to reflect mood but to regulate it.

Murphy, N.A., & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2008). Preferences for emotional information in older and younger adults: A meta-analysis of memory and attention tasks. Psychology and Aging, 23, 263- 286.

We conducted a meta-analysis to determine the magnitude of older and younger adults’ preferences for emotional stimuli in studies of attention and memory. Analyses involved 1,085 older adults from 37 independent samples and 3,150 younger adults from 86 independent samples. Both age groups exhibited small-to-medium emotion salience effects (i.e., preference for emotionally-valenced stimuli over neutral stimuli), as well as positivity preferences (i.e., preference for positively-valenced stimuli over neutral stimuli) and negativity preferences (i.e., preference for negatively-valenced stimuli to neutral stimuli). There were few age differences overall. Type of measurement appeared to influence the magnitude of effects; recognition studies indicated significant age effects where older adults showed smaller effects for emotion salience and negativity preferences than younger adults.

Wadlinger, H.A., & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2008). Looking happy: The experimental manipulation of a positive visual attention bias. Emotion, 8, 121-126.

Individuals with a positive visual attention bias may use their gaze to regulate their emotions while under stress. The current study experimentally trained differential biases in participants (N=55) attention towards positive or neutral information. In each training trial one positive and one neutral word were presented, then a visual target appeared consistently in the location of the positive or neutral words. Participants were instructed to make a simple perceptual discrimination response to the target. Immediately before and after attentional training, participants were exposed to a stress task consisting of viewing a series of extremely negative images while having their eyes tracked. Visual fixation time to negative images, assessed with an eye tracker, served as an indicator of using gaze to successfully regulate emotion. Those participants experimentally trained to selectively attend to affectively positive information looked significantly less at the negative images in the visual stress task following the attentional training, thus demonstrating a learned aversion to negative stimuli. Participants trained towards neutral information did not show this biased gaze pattern.


Isaacowitz, D.M. (2007). Understanding individual and age differences in well-being: An experimental, attention-based approach. In A. Ong & M. van Dulmen (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Methods in Positive Psychology (pp. 220-232). New York: Oxford University Press.

Isaacowitz, D.M., Löckenhoff, C., Wright, R., Sechrest, L., Riedel, R., Lane, R.A., & Costa, P.T. (2007). Age differences in recognition of emotion in lexical stimuli and facial expressions. Psychology and Aging, 22, 147-159.

Age differences in emotion recognition from lexical stimuli and facial expressions were examined in a cross-sectional sample of adults aged 18 to 85 (N = 357). Emotion-specific response biases differed by age: Older adults were disproportionately more likely to incorrectly label lexical stimuli as happiness, sadness, and surprise and to incorrectly label facial stimuli as disgust and fear. After these biases were controlled, findings suggested that older adults were less accurate at identifying emotions than were young adults, but the pattern differed across emotions and task types. The lexical task showed stronger age differences than the facial task, and for lexical stimuli, age groups differed in accuracy for all emotional states except fear. For facial stimuli, in contrast, age groups differed only in accuracy for anger, disgust, fear, and happiness. Implications for age-related changes in different types of emotional processing are discussed.

Isaacowitz, D.M., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2007). Learned Helplessness. The Encyclopedia of Stress, 2nd edition (pp. 567-570). Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

Luo, J., & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2007). How optimists face skin cancer: Risk assessment, attention, memory, and behavior. Psychology & Health, 22, 963-984.

The purpose of the present study was to investigate how optimists process health-related information. Sixty-five young adults (ages 18-35) reported skin cancer-related knowledge and behaviors, and read slides of information on skin and skin cancer. Visual attention to the slides was recorded using eye tracking, and their memory for the information was measured. Additionally, participants’ self-reported skin cancer-relevant behavior was assessed prospectively in the months following the lab component of the study. Results show that individuals low in dispositional optimism or high in health-related optimism paid more attention when they were at high objective risk of developing skin cancer; and individuals high in dispositional optimism or high in health-related optimism were more likely to perform adaptive, health-promoting behaviors. In addition, optimistic beliefs were found not to be related with unrealistic optimism. Dispositional and health-related optimism therefore appear to predict health-related cognition and behavior in distinct ways.


Isaacowitz, D.M. (2006). Motivated Gaze: The view from the gazer. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 68-72.

How does gaze relate to psychological properties of the gazer? Studies using eye tracking reveal robust group differences in gaze toward emotional information: Optimists gaze less at negative, unpleasant images than do pessimists, and older individuals look away from negative faces and toward happy faces. These group differences appear to reflect an underlying motivation to achieve and maintain good moods by directing attention to mood facilitating stimuli. Maintaining a positive mood is only one goal-related context that influences visual attention; recent work has also suggested that other goal states can impact gaze. Gaze therefore is a tool of motivation, directing gazers toward stimuli that are consistent with their goals and away from information that will not facilitate goal achievement.

Isaacowitz, D.M., Wadlinger, H.A., Goren, D., & Wilson, H.R. (2006). Is there an age-related positivity effect in visual attention? A comparison of two methodologies. Emotion, 6, 511-516.

Research suggests a positivity effect in older adults’ memory for emotional material, but the evidence from the attentional domain is mixed. The present study combined 2 methodologies for studying preferences in visual attention, eye tracking and dot probe, as younger and older adults viewed synthetic emotional faces. Eye tracking most consistently revealed a positivity effect in older adults’ attention, so that older adults showed preferential looking toward happy faces and away from sad faces. Dot-prove results were less robust, but in the same direction. Methodological and theoretical implications for the study of socioemotional aging are discussed.

Isaacowitz, D.M., Wadlinger, H.A., Goren, D., & Wilson, H.R. (2006). Selective preference in visual fixation away from negative images in old age? An eye tracking study. Psychology and Aging, 21, 40-48.

Recent studies have suggested that older individuals selectively forget negative information. However, findings on a positivity bias in the attention of older adults have been more mixed. The current study, eye tracking was used to record visual fixation in nearly real-time to investigate whether older individuals indeed show a positivity bias in their visual attention to emotional information. Young and old individuals (N = 64) viewed pairs of synthetic faces that included the same face in a non-emotional expression and in 1 of 4 emotional expressions (happiness, sadness, anger, or fear). Gaze patterns were recorded as individuals viewed the face pairs. Older adults showed an attentional preference toward happy faces and away from angry ones; the only preference shown by young adults was toward afraid faces. The age groups were not different in overall cognitive functioning, suggesting that these attentional differences are specific and motivated rather than due to general cognitive change with age.

Light, J., & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2006). The effect of developmental regulation on visual attention: The example of the “Biological Clock.” Cognition and Emotion, 20, 623-645.

As individuals approach developmental deadlines, the questions of what goals to pursue and how to pursue them become more urgent. Past work has investigated how explicit goals and implicit memory processes reflect motivation concerning developmental deadlines (J. Heckhausen, Wrosch, & Fleeson, 2001). The current study investigated a possible link between developmental regulation and attention to deadline-relevant stimuli by comparing women approaching the end of their childbearing years with women who had passed the deadline without successfully completing the goal.

Pruzan, K. & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2006). An attentional application of socioemotional selectivity theory in college students. Social Development, 15, 326-338.

Socioemotional selectivity theory posits that emotions become increasingly salient as individuals approach endings. Recent findings have linked the theory with biases in information processing in the context of aging. However, these studies all confounded advancing age and the motivational impact of endings. This study represented an attempt to disentangle the effects of large age differences from those of endings on the processing of emotional information by investigating differences in attention to emotional stimuli between college seniors and college first-years. Seniors represented a group approaching the social ending of graduation from college and first-years served as a comparison group not facing an ending. Following recent findings in the literature on aging, it was hypothesized that seniors would selectively avoid negative images in an effort to better regulate their emotions in the face of this social ending. First years were found to spend a significantly larger portion of their time viewing sad faces than did seniors. Seniors also exhibited significantly higher levels of positive affect than did first-years. These findings are discussed within the context of emotion regulation in the face of impending endings across the lifespan.

Rossi, N.E. & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2006). What is important to me now? Age differences in domain selectivity depend on the measure. Ageing International, 31, 24-43.

Do older individuals have fewer important areas of life than their younger counterparts? While several recent theories of successful aging posit that selectivity in life domains and goal pursuits are important components of successful adult development and aging, it is not obvious how one would evaluate this claim empirically. The current study used four approaches to evaluate age differences in the number and content of life domains currently selected as important in an individual’s life. Two open-ended and two non-open-ended tools were used; the primary result was that age differences in number of selected domains emerged on the open-ended measures but not the others. Age differences in content of domains differed across assessment tools as well, but were consistent with an age-related shift in focus toward group involvement and leisure activities. Implications for practitioners attempting to discern optimal levels of life engagement for older individuals are discussed.

Wadlinger, H.A., & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2006). Positive mood broadens visual attention to positive stimuli. Motivation and Emotion, 30, 89-101.

In an attempt to investigate the impact of positive emotions on visual attention within the context of Fredrickson s (1998) broaden-and-build model, eye tracking was used in two studies to measure visual attentional preferences of college students (n=58, n=26) to emotional pictures. Half of each sample experienced induced positive mood immediately before viewing slides of three similarly valenced images, in varying central-peripheral arrays. Attentional breadth was determined by measuring the percentage viewing time to peripheral images as well as by the number of visual saccades participants made per slide. Consistent with Fredrickson s theory, the first study showed that individuals induced into positive mood fixated more on peripheral stimuli than did control participants; however, this only held true for highly-valenced positive stimuli. Participants under induced positive mood also made more frequent saccades for slides of neutral and positive valence. A second study showed that these effects were not simply due to differences in emotional arousal between stimuli. Selective attentional broadening to positive stimuli may act both to facilitate later building of resources as well as to maintain current positive affective states.

Xing, C., & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2006). Aiming at happiness: How motivation affects attention to and memory for emotional images. Motivation and Emotion, 30, 249-256.

Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (Carstensen, L. L., Isaacowitz, D. M., & Charles, S. T. (1999). American Psychologist, 54, 155-181) posits that older adults, and anyone else who perceive their time as limited, show a motivational shift toward emotion regulation which causes them to exhibit a positivity bias and negativity avoidance in attention and memory. We tested whether such a motivational shift can indeed cause changes in emotional processing by manipulating motivation in a sample of young adults. After the manipulation, participants looked at real-world images while their eye movements were tracked. It was found that participants motivated to regulate emotion attended less to negative than positive images and showed less looking time to all stimulus types compared to the other two conditions. No evidence was found linking the motivational manipulation to emotional memory.

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