The Roles of Age and Attention in General Emotion Regulation, Reappraisal, and Expressive Suppression

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Life span emotional development theories propose age differences in emotion regulation tendencies and abilities. Research on age-related positivity has identified age differences in attention to emotional content, which may support emotion regulation in older age. The current research examines the roles of age and attention under various emotion regulation instructions. We measured younger (N = 92) and older (N = 88) adults’ fixation to negative emotional content and continuously rated affect during normal viewing and instructions to regulate. Those instructed to regulate first did so generally, then using detached or positive reappraisal and expressive suppression. Older adults (OAs) fixated less than younger adults (YAs) in negative areas regardless of instructions, suggesting broad age-related attentional tendencies. In contrast to some previous research, between-subjects analyses showed no age differences in effects of either form of reappraisal or suppression on affect. Within-subject analyses showed specific regulation instructions predicted less negative affect than general instructions for both age groups. Attention was unrelated to affect for both YAs and OAs across instructions. In sum, this research presents pervasive attentional preferences away from negative material in OAs as well as evidence of successful reappraisal and suppression in both age groups. Looking patterns, however, seemed unrelated to emotion regulation instructions’ effects on mood for either age group. Age differences in attentional patterns may therefore not translate into age differences in subsequent emotion regulation success.

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