Age differences in gain- and loss-motivated attention

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Abstract

Adaptive gain theory (Aston-Jones & Cohen, 2005) suggests that the phasic release of norepinephrine (NE) to cortical areas reflects changes in the utility of ongoing tasks. In the context of aging, this theory raises interesting questions, given that the motivations of older adults differ from those of younger adults. According to socioemotional selectivity theory (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999), aging is associated with greater emphasis on emotion-regulation goals, leading older adults to prioritize positive over negative information. This suggests that the phasic release of NE in response to threatening stimuli may be diminished in older adults. In the present study, younger adults (aged 18–34 years) and older adults (60–82 years) completed the Attention Network Test (ANT), modified to include an incentive manipulation. A behavioral index of attentional alerting served as a marker of phasic arousal. For younger adults, this marker correlated with the effect of both gain and loss incentives on performance. For older adults, in contrast, the correlation between phasic arousal and incentive sensitivity held for gain incentives only. These findings suggest that the enlistment of phasic NE activity may be specific to approach-oriented motivation in older adults.

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