When Meaning Matters More: Media Preferences Across the Adult Life Span

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Abstract

Two studies considered age differences in the roles of emotion and meaningfulness in adults’ media preferences. Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (SST) suggests that with increasing age, positive emotions become more meaningful, and emotional meaningfulness matters more for situation selection. Other developmental descriptions suggest that negative affect may be meaningful and interesting in youth. In Study 1, United States 18–86 year olds read descriptions of TV programs that varied in levels of warmth, funniness, sadness, and fright; in Study 2, United States and German 18–82 year olds watched film trailers that varied in levels of gore and meaningfulness. Participants rated their anticipated emotions, anticipated meaningfulness of the content, and their viewing interest. Consistent with SST, in both studies, anticipated meaningfulness was a stronger predictor of viewing interest for older adults relative to younger adults, and the indirect path (Emotion → Meaning → Interest) was stronger for older relative to younger adults. In Study 1, warmth (but not funniness) was more predictive of meaningfulness for older relative to younger adults; sadness and fear were not more predictive of meaningfulness for younger adults. In Study 2, there were age differences in the effects of fright on interest, in part via effects on anticipated fun and suspense (but not arousal). Overall, the results provide limited evidence that positive or negative emotions are more meaningful or interesting at different ages. However, they support the argument that emotional meaningfulness matters more to older than to younger adults.

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