Attenuating Age-Related Learning Deficits: Emotional Valenced Feedback Interacts With Task Complexity

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Abstract

Previous research reveals that older adults sometimes show enhanced processing of emotionally positive stimuli relative to negative stimuli, but that this positivity bias reverses to become a negativity bias when cognitive control resources are less available. In this study, we test the hypothesis that emotionally positive feedback will attenuate well-established age-related deficits in rule learning whereas emotionally negative feedback will amplify age deficits—but that this pattern will reverse when the task involves a high cognitive load. Experiment 1 used emotional face feedback and revealed an interaction among age, valence of the feedback, and task load. When the task placed minimal load on cognitive control resources, happy-face feedback attenuated age-related deficits in initial rule learning and angry-face feedback led to age-related deficits in initial rule learning and set shifting. However, when the task placed a high load on cognitive control resources, we found that angry-face feedback attenuated age-related deficits in initial rule learning and set shifting whereas happy-face feedback led to age-related deficits in initial rule learning and set shifting. Experiment 2 used less emotional point feedback and revealed age-related deficits in initial rule learning and set shifting under low and high cognitive load for point-gain and point-loss conditions. The research presented here demonstrates that emotional feedback can attenuate age-related learning deficits—but only positive feedback for tasks with a low cognitive load and negative feedback for tasks with high cognitive load.

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