Allard, E.S., Wadlinger, H.A., & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2010). Positive gaze preferences in older adults: Assessing the role of cognitive effort with pupil dilation. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 17, 296-311.

Older adults display positivity preferences in their gaze, consistent with their prioritization of emotion regulation goals. While some research has argued that substantial amounts of cognitive effort are necessary for these information-processing preferences to occur, other work suggests that these attentional patterns unfold with minimal cognitive exertion. The current study used an implicit regulatory context (i.e. viewing facial stimuli of varying emotions) to assess how much cognitive effort was required for positive attentional preferences to occur. Effortful cognitive processing was assessed with a direct measure of change in pupil dilation. Results indicated that minimal cognitive effort was expended when older adults engaged in positive gaze preferences. This finding suggests that gaze acts as a rather effortless and economical regulatory tool for individuals to shape their affective experience.

Fung, H.H., Isaacowitz, D.M., Lu, A.Y., & Li, T. (2010). Interdependent self-construal moderates age-related negativity reduction effects in memory. Psychology and Aging, 25, 321-329.

There is some debate concerning whether people selectively attend to and remember less negative relative to positive or neutral information with age. We argue that such an age-related negativity reduction effect may be attenuated among individuals who are more interdependent, as they are likely to perceive negative information as equally useful and important as positive information. In 2 studies, we tested this hypothesis by examining memory for (Study 1) and visual attention to (Study 2) emotional (positive vs. negative) stimuli among younger, middle-aged, and older Chinese participants. Findings revealed that the age-related negativity reduction effect was found to a lesser extent among older Chinese individuals who were more interdependent than among those who were less interdependent.

Isaacowitz. D.M., & Fung, H.L. (2010). Motivation across time and place: What gaze can tell us about aging and culture. E. Balcetis & G.D. Lassiter (Eds.), Social Psychology of Sight (pp. 27-49). New York: Psychology Press.

Recent social psychological evidence suggests that people may see “what they want to see”, but such findings prompt the question: what do people want to see? In this chapter, we argue that what someone wants to see (and does see) is not simply a state of being, but rather it varies systematically as a function of between-person variables such as age and cultural background. In other words, while vision can certainly be affected by state motivation, traits that vary between groups can also guide visual processing. We use studies of fixation to test for differences between groups in what aspects of visual stimuli are more or less attended to. These studies point to motivation as a powerful guide for gaze, and suggest that gaze tell us about underlying motivational states of perceivers as they interact with their environment. In particular, we will show in this chapter that motivation related both to age and to culture, to time and to place, can influence perceivers’ visual processing of their environment. What, though, do we mean by the term “motivation”? Heinz Heckhausen defined motivation as “a global concept for a variety of processes and effects whose common core is the realization that an organism selects a particular behavior because of expected consequences, and then implements it with some measure of energy, along a particular path”. In other words, humans are not passively interacting with the world around them, but instead are proactively trying to get what they want in their on-line perception, cognition and behavior. This leads us to the next question, which is: why study gaze patterns as a way of understanding motivation? On the most mundane level, using gaze patterns as a dependent variable in the study of motivation provides a more implicit measure of what is guiding an individual’s interactions with the world than simply asking them about their goals. But even among non-self-report measures, fixation can provide information on processing above and beyond measures like response accuracy and dot-probe. Gaze is sensitive to individual differences such as optimism, and below we describe our attempts to use the study of gaze to move beyond simply documenting individual differences to using them to understand how goals direct perceivers’ interactions with their environment.

Li, T., Fung, H.H., & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2010). The role of dispositional reappraisal in the age-related positivity effect. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 66B(1), 56–60. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbq074. Advance Access published on November 3, 2010. 

This study aimed to clarify mixed findings about whether older adults have a cognitive bias toward positive and/or away from negative information (the positivity effect) by examining whether dispositional cognitive reappraisal (a disposition to reinterpret an event to lessen its negative emotional impact) could moderate this effect. Participants from 19 to 79 years old watched a video that simultaneously showed a positive and a negative image. Two layers of their emotion regulation process, attention (measured by percent fixation duration) and cognitive effort (measured by pupil dilation), toward each image were recorded. One dispositional emotion regulation strategy, dispositional cognitive reappraisal, was also assessed. In general, older age was related to less percent fixation duration but not to differential pupil dilation toward the negative image. However, among those with higher dispositional cognitive reappraisal, older age was related to smaller pupil dilation for the negative image. Findings suggest that whether the age-related positivity effect occurs depends on the matching between cognitive processes and dispositional emotion regulation strategies.

Murphy, N.A., & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2010). Age effects and gaze patterns in recognizing emotional expressions: An in-depth look at gaze measures and covariates. Cognition and Emotion, 24, 436-452.

The present study investigated predictors of age effects in emotion recognition accuracy. Older and younger adults were tested on a battery of cognitive, vision, and affective questionnaires; participants’ eyes were also tracked while they completed an emotion recognition task. Older adults were worse at recognizing sad, angry, and fearful expressions than younger adults. When controlling for covariates related to emotion recognition accuracy, younger adults still outperformed older adults in recognizing anger and sadness. Younger adults tended to pay more attention to the eyes than older adults. Results suggest that age-related gaze patterns in emotion recognition may depend on the specific emotion being recognized and may not generalize across stimuli sets.

Murphy, N. A., Lehrfeld, J. M., & Isaacowitz, D. M. (2010, August 16). Recognition of posed and spontaneous dynamic smiles in young and older adults. Psychology and Aging. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0019888

In 2 studies, we investigated age effects in the ability to recognize dynamic posed and spontaneous smiles. Study 1 showed that both young and older adult participants were above chance in their ability to distinguish between posed and spontaneous smiles in young adults. In Study 2, we found that young adult participant performance declined when judging a combination of both young and older adult target smiles, while older adult participants outperformed young adult participants in distinguishing between posed and spontaneous smiles. A synthesis of results across the 2 studies showed a small-to-medium age effect (d = -0.40), suggesting that older adults have an advantage in discriminating between smile types. Mixed stimuli (i.e., a mixture of young and older adult faces) may impact accurate smile discrimination. In future research, both the sources (cues) and behavioral effects of age-related differences in the discrimination of positive expressions should be investigated.

Pearman, A., Andreoletti, C., & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2010). Sadness prediction and response: Effects of age and agreeableness. Aging and Mental Health, 14, 355-363.

Research has suggested that both age and personality play a role in emotional experience and regulation, but these variables have not been considered together to determine the relative contribution of each. This study simultaneously examined age and agreeableness differences in the experience of sad stimuli. Participants were 46 younger adults (age, M = 22.04 years, SD = 5.41 years) and 48 older adults (age, M = 74.23, SD = 7.82 years). Participants were asked to predict how sad stimuli (i.e., sad photos) would make them feel and were then measured on their actual reaction to the stimuli (reactivity) as well as on their emotional recovery. Agreeableness, but not age, was related to predicted levels of sadness, such that the more agreeable, the higher the predicted sadness (β = 0.37). In contrast to expectations, prediction accuracy was not related to age or agreeableness. For emotional reactivity, agreeableness (β = 0.16), but not age, was related to reactivity to sad stimuli (i.e., more agreeable, higher reactivity). Finally, age (β = 0.14) was significantly related to emotional recovery such that the older adults reported lower levels of sadness at posttest than did the younger adults. Similarly, people who were more agreeable also reported better emotional recovery (β = 0.15). These relationships were not affected by depression or pretest sadness ratings. Overall, these findings suggest distinct roles for age and agreeableness in predicting different components of the emotion regulation process. An individual with advanced age, high levels of agreeableness, or both may be well-positioned for resilience throughout the emotion regulation process.

Piquado, T., Isaacowitz, D.M., & Wingfield, A. (2010). Pupillometry as a measure of cognitive effort in younger and older adults. Psychophysiology, 47, 560-569.

Two experiments examined the effectiveness of the pupillary response as a measure of cognitive load in younger and older adults. Experiment 1 measured the change in pupil size of younger and older adults while they listened to spoken digit lists that varied in length and retained them briefly for recall. In Experiment 2 changes in relative pupil size were measured while younger and older adults listened to sentences for later recall that varied in syntactic complexity and sentence length. Both age groups’ pupil sizes were sensitive to the size of the memory set in Experiment 1 and sentence length in Experiment 2, with the older adults showing a larger effect of the memory load on a normalized measure of pupil size relative to the younger adults. By contrast, only the younger adults showed a difference in the pupillary response to a change in syntactic complexity, even with an adjustment for the reduced reactivity of the older pupil.


Ersner-Hershfield, H., Carvel, D.S., & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2009). Feeling happy and sad, but only seeing the positive: Poignancy and the positivity effect in attention. Motivation and Emotion, 33, 333-342.

Poignancy is a mixed emotional experience that occurs in the face of meaningful endings (Ersner-Hershfield, Mikels, Sullivan, & Carstensen, 2008). Despite documentation of the phenomenological component of poignancy, no study to date has examined the relationship between such a state and information processing. We therefore examined the link between poignancy and attentional patterns using an eyetracking paradigm. To induce poignancy, experimental condition participants imagined being in a personally chosen meaningful location for a final time; control participants also imagined being in a meaningful location but with no ending. After, both groups were shown emotional images. Experimental condition participants looked more at positive images relative to negative images, whereas participants in the control condition did not display such a preference. Findings suggest that despite being a mixed emotional experience, poignancy may produce a subsequent positivity effect in information processing.

Isaacowitz, D.M., Allard, E., Murphy, N.A., & Schlangel, M. (2009). The time course of age related preferences towards positive and negative stimuli. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 64B, 188-192.

When and why do older adults show positive preferences in their gaze patterns, looking preferentially toward positive and away from some negative stimuli? The current study investigated the time course of older adults’ preferential fixation toward positive (happy) stimuli and away from negative (angry) stimuli to discern whether such patterns are more consistent with cognitive control or with simplified processing accounts of their origins. Positive preferences in older adults were found to emerge only 500 ms and later after stimulus onset and increased linearly over time; this time course is consistent with a cognitive control account.

Isaacowitz. D.M., Toner, K., & Neupert, S.D. (2009). Use of gaze for real-time mood regulation: Effects of age and attentional functioning. Psychology and Aging, 24, 989-994.

Older adults show positive preferences in their gaze toward emotional faces, and such preferences appear to be activated when older adults are in bad moods. This suggests that age-related gaze preferences serve a mood regulatory role, but whether or not they actually function to improve mood over time has yet to be tested. We investigated links between fixation and mood change in younger and older adults, as well as the moderating role of attentional functioning. Age X Fixation X Attentional Functioning interactions emerged, such that older adults with better executive functioning were able to resist mood declines by showing positive gaze preferences. Implications for the function of age-related positive gaze preferences are discussed.

Larcom, M.J. & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2009). Rapid emotion regulation after mood induction: Age and individual differences. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 64B, 733-741.

Previous research has suggested that emotion regulation improves with age. This study examined both age and individual differences in online emotion regulation after a negative mood induction. We found evidence that older adults were more likely to rapidly regulate their emotions than were younger adults. Moreover, older adults who rapidly regulated had lower trait anxiety and depressive symptoms, and higher levels of optimism, than their same-age peers who did not rapidly regulate. Measuring mood change over an extended time revealed that older rapid regulators still reported increased levels of positive affect over 20 minutes later, whereas young adult rapid regulators’ moods had declined. These results highlight the importance of considering individual differences when examining age differences in online emotion regulation.

Nguyen, H.T., Isaacowitz, D.M., & Rubin, P.A.D. (2009). Age- and fatigue-related markers of human faces: An eye tracking study. Ophthalmology, 115, 355-360.

Purpose: To investigate the facial cues that are used when making judgments about how old or tired a face appears

Design: Experimental study

Participants: Forty-seven young adults were included in this study: 15 males (31.9%) and 32 females, ranging from age 18 to 30. Participants were recruited from the student population in the Boston area.

Methods: 48 full-face digital images of “normal appearing” patients were collected and uploaded to an Eye Tracking system. We used an ASL Eye Tracker 504 with a Magnetic Head Transmitter device associated with gaze-tracking software to record and calculate the gaze of the participants’ left eye as they viewed the faces on a computer screen. After seeing each picture, participants were asked to assess the age of the face in the picture by making a  selection on a rating scale divided into 5 year intervals; for fatigue judgments, participants were asked to rate how tired the individual in the picture appeared, using a rating scale from 1 (not tired) to 7 (most tired ).

Main Outcome Measures: The main outcome measure was gaze fixation, as assessed by tracking the eye movements of participants as they viewed full-face digital pictures, using an ASL Eye Tracker 504 system. We considered gaze patterns separately for age and fatigue judgments.

Results: For fatigue judgments, participants spent the most time looking at the eye region (31.81 %), then the forehead and the nose regions (14.99% and 14.12%, respectively); in the eye region, participants looked most at the brows (13.1%) and lower lids (9.4%). Participants spent more time looking at the cheeks  on faces they rated as least tired than they did on those they rated as most tired (t= 2.079, p<0.05). For age judgments, participants looked most at the eye region (27.22%), and then the forehead (15.71%) and the nose (14.30%); in the eye region, the brows and lower lids also had the highest frequencies of interest (11.40% and 8.90%, respectively). Participants looked more at the brows (t= -2.63, p<0.05) and glabella (t=-3.28, p<0.01) in those faces they rated as looking the oldest.

Conclusion: This study supports the hypothesis that age and fatigue judgments are related to preferential attention towards the eye region. Consequently, these results suggest that aesthetic or functional surgery to the eye region may be one of the most effective interventions in enhancing the appearance of an individual.

You, J., Fung, H.H., & Isaacowitz, D.M. (2009). Age differences in dispositional optimism: A cross-cultural study. European Journal of Aging, 6, 247-252.

Testing the hypothesis that individuals develop their personal characteristics according to what their cultures emphasize, this cross-sectionalstudy aimed at investigating how dispositional optimism varied with age among Americans and Hong Kong Chinese. The sample included 84 younger adults and 55 older adults that were equally distributed across the two cultures. Results revealed that older Americans displayed ahigher level of dispositional optimism than did younger Americans; whereas older Chinese showed a lower level of dispositional optimism than did their younger counterparts. Findings shed light on the mixed findings on age-related dispositional optimism in the literature.

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