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Effect of attentional control on the expression of the negativity bias in aging

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Emotion and attention both work to focus our thoughts in a manner that is adaptive. However, it appears that as we age, emotional mechanisms shift, changing our priorities in terms of what is deemed to be relevant or irrelevant. In younger adults, a strong negativity bias has been reported, where individuals pay more attention to emotionally negative information and less attention to positive information. In older adults, there is evidence of a shift in focus from drawing attention towards the negative to a more equal balance between negative and positive stimuli, or even a shift towards a preference for positive information. To date, there has been extensive research on this change in emotional prioritization (often termed the "positivity effect") and its influence on cognition in aging. However, there has been little work examining how changes in emotional regulation interact with attentional mechanisms to cause these shifts. Specifically, the possible roles that bottom-up (involuntary) versus top-down (voluntary) factors play in driving this change has not been determined. Generating a deeper understanding of emotionally-based attention allocation in older adults is critical for at least two reasons: i) attention impacts all other cognitive functions including memory and emotion-laden decision making (e.g., health, personal finances);and ii) selective deployment of attention towards or away from emotionally-charged stimuli is an effective form of "emotional regulation." This is highly relevant for existing descriptions of aging, such as Socioemotional Selectivity Theory, which predict that older adults exhibit positivity biases in attention allocation in order to increase positive mood states and overall feelings of well-being. This has recently been hypothesized to arise from voluntary efforts to direct attention towards positive stimuli and away from negative ones. The research proposed here was designed to examine possible age-related changes in the attentional mechanisms behind emotional biases using an event-related brain potential (ERP) approach. Three studies are planned. In the first two, task instructions will be manipulated in order to isolate the influence of bottom-up and top-down attention allocation on an ERP-based measure of emotional prioritization of information processing in younger and older adults. If age-related shifts toward more "positive" prioritization are driven by voluntary efforts, then both younger and older adults should exhibit a negativity bias during the "bottom-up" condition. In the second study, participants will be asked to change their emotional 'frame,'allowing for an investigation into whether automatic emotional biases can be overcome through top-down control. The final study involves a comparison brain response measures to cognitive functions. If positivity effects associated with aging are purposeful then it should be the older adults with the greatest executive cognitive capacity that exhibit the weakest negativity biases in brain activity.

PUBLIC HEALTH RELEVANCE: This research stands to improve the understanding of how emotional factors can influence cognitive function, and also how this influence might change with aging. The possibility that voluntary cognitive operations performed on "positive" information might not change with age in the same manner as those performed on "negative" information forces a revision of the widely-held view that cognition undergoes uniform, inexorable change. This has specific implications for the effective daily function of older adults including regulation and control of overall well-being, susceptibility to persuasion in advertising, and decision making in domains with emotionally-laden factors such as health care, personal finances, and family relationships.

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