Reduced Facial Reactivity as a Contributor to Preserved Emotion Regulation in Older Adults

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Abstract

This study investigated whether differences in the type of strategy used, or age-related differences in intensity of facial reactivity, might contribute to preserved emotion regulation ability in older adults. Young (n = 35) and older (n = 33) adults were instructed to regulate their emotion to positive and negative pictures under 3 conditions (watch, expressive suppression, cognitive ‘detached’ reappraisal). Participants were objectively monitored using facial electromyography (EMG) and assessed on memory performance. Both age groups were effectively, and equivalently, able to reduce their facial expressions. In relation to facial reactivity, the percentage increase of older adults’ facial muscle EMG activity in the watch condition was significantly reduced relative to young adults. Recall of pictures following regulation was similar to the watch condition, and there was no difference in memory performance between the 2 regulation strategies for both groups. These findings do not support the proposal that the type of strategy used explains preserved emotion regulation ability in older adults. Coupled with the lack of memory costs following regulation, these data instead are more consistent with the suggestion that older adults may retain emotion regulation capacity partly because they exhibit less facial reactivity to begin with.

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