Emotional Coherence in Early and Later Adulthood During Sadness Reactivity and Regulation

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Abstract

The current study reports the first investigation of age-related changes in emotional coherence across multiple response systems (experiential, physiological, and expressive) in sadness reactivity and regulation. Some accounts indirectly suggest that blunted physiological responses to emotional stimuli (e.g., Mendes, 2010) may lead to an age-related decline in emotional coherence, whereas a conflicting account suggests that age-relevant content can modulate responses across multiple systems (e.g., Kunzmann & Grühn, 2005), which has the potential to increase emotional coherence in older adults. We therefore examined emotional coherence in 60 younger (Mage = 20) and 60 older adults (Mage = 71) during emotional reactivity and regulation (suppression and acceptance) while participants watched sadness-eliciting videos. Emotional experience (sadness intensity self-report), physiological (heart period) responses, and behavioral facial expression (corrugator supercilii muscle activity) were assessed while participants viewed these videos. Importantly, older adults showed greater emotional coherence between experience and heart period and maintained coherence between experience and expression responses compared to younger adults. These findings are consistent with the idea that, because of motivational relevance and life experiences, sadness-eliciting content may lead to a greater coupling between sadness experience and physiology in older than in younger adults. Age is therefore an important individual difference factor to consider when examining within-individual associations between emotion systems.

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