Tag Archives: emotions

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle April 26, 2013

Anthony Ong


Want a good night’s sleep? Be positive – consistently. Although happiness is generally good for sleeping, when a person’s happiness varies a lot in reaction to daily ups and downs, sleep suffers, reports a Cornell study published online in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

The researchers analyzed data from 100 middle-aged participants in a longitudinal study of midlife in the United States that included telephone interviews about participants’ daily experience as well as subjective and objective measures of sleeping habits. The study looked at the overall levels of positive emotion that the participants experienced in their lives – those associated with more stable personality traits, as well as daily fluctuations in positive emotions in reaction to daily events.

The team found that, as expected, having a more positive general outlook on life was associated with improved sleep quality. However, they found that the more reactive or fragile a participant’s positive emotions were in relation to external events, the more their sleep was impaired, especially for individuals high in positivity to begin with.

“Previous research suggests that the experience of joy and happiness may slow down the effects of aging by fortifying health-enhancing behaviors such as restorative sleep,” said first author Anthony Ong, associate professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology. “Our study extends this research by showing that whereas possessing relatively stable high levels of positive emotion may be conducive to improved sleep, unstable highly positive feelings may be associated with poor sleep because such emotions are subject to the vicissitudes of daily influences.” Ong added, “These findings are novel because they point to the complex dynamics associated with fragile happiness and sleep that until now have been largely attributed to unhappy people.”

Ong co-authored the study, “Linking stable and dynamic features of positive affect to sleep,” with Deinera Exner-Cortens and Catherine Riffin, Cornell graduate students; Andrew Steptoe, University of London; Alex Zautra, Arizona State University; and David Almeida, Penn State University.

The research was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, February 12, 2013


Anthony Ong


People who receive high levels of emotional support from their partner have an increased risk of death if they perceive their partner as not caring, understanding and validating, reports a Cornell study published in Health Psychology (Vol. 32:2) this month.

The study found this paradoxical association disappeared completely for individuals who perceive their partner as responsive to their needs, suggesting that the effect of emotional support depends on the perceptions of the recipient rather than the amount of actual support provided.

"Intuitively, one would expect that receiving emotional support would be associated with better health outcomes, but prior research shows this is not always the case -- in fact, it is frequently associated with worse health outcomes," said first author Emre Selcuk, a graduate student in the field of human development. He conducted the study with Anthony Ong, associate professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology.

"To our knowledge, this is the first study to document the conditions under which received emotional support increases mortality risk," said Selcuk.

To better understand the health consequences of received support, the authors analyzed data from a national sample of more than 1,800 married or cohabitating adults in midlife in the United States who completed a 1995-96 survey that included measures of received support, perceived partner responsiveness and physical health status. Of the original group, 102 were identified as deceased allowing the authors to analyze mortality risk. After controlling for health status, health behaviors, personality traits and demographic factors, they found perceived partner responsiveness was responsible for the link between mortality and received support, thus shedding light on the mixed effects of emotional support in prior research.

The well-intentioned provision of support may backfire and lead to worse outcomes when the supportive behavior doesn't match the needs of the recipient or if it threatens the recipient's sense of self-efficacy and independence, the authors say.

"The received support may ultimately be harmful if the recipient thinks 'he does not understand me, this is not what I need,' 'her support does not solve my problem' or 'she is trying to provide support because she thinks I am not capable,'" Ong said.

"Our findings add to a growing body of research suggesting that people's attempts to provide social support are most likely to be health promoting when such support is perceived as responsive to the needs of the recipient," Ong added. "Conversely, support that is not quite paired with compassion is likely to be perceived as incomplete and full of risks. Over time, such perceptions can have big trade-offs for our health and well-being."

"Future research should test the effect of perceived partner responsiveness on other physical health indicators, mental health outcomes and relationship quality," said Selcuk. "If similar results are obtained, this body of work may have therapy implications for improving individuals' health and relationship well-being."

The researchers did not use any outside funding to conduct their study.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Susan Kelley
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, June 25, 2012



Here's another reason to keep a photo of a loved one on your desk. After recalling an upsetting event, thinking about your mother or romantic partner can make you feel better and reduce your negative thinking, according to a new Cornell study. Perhaps most important, it also may result in fewer psychological and physical health problems at least a month afterward.

"Our own memories can often be a significant source of stress. For example, thinking about a recent breakup or underperforming on an exam usually decreases positive mood and increases negative thinking," said co-author Vivian Zayas, assistant professor of psychology. "However, simply thinking about an attachment figure, whether it is one's mother or partner, by either recalling a supportive interaction with them or just viewing their photograph, helps people restore their mood and decreases the tendency to engage in negative thinking."

The research is the first to explore the benefits of thinking about a loved one when a person experiences stress they generate themselves. Previous research has focused on the benefits when a person experiences externally generated stress, such as physical pain.

"We're showing the effectiveness of a new technique to cope with negative memories," said co-author Emre Selcuk, a Ph.D. candidate in the graduate field of human development. "As compared to prior work, it is a much less effortful, automatic and spontaneous strategy."

Past research has also focused on emotion regulation strategies that can be employed before encountering an upsetting event. "This approach is similar to wearing a raincoat to prevent oneself from getting wet," Zayas said. "But, in everyday life, it is not always possible to pre-emptively deal with upsetting events. Our work shows that one way to regulate emotion after thinking about an upsetting event is by simply thinking about an attachment figure. It is akin to getting caught in a thunder shower and using a towel to dry yourself off after you are already wet."

The paper appears online and in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

To arrive at their conclusions, the authors designed a series of experiments in which they asked study participants to recall a negative memory and then think of a loved one. In the first experiment, participants were asked to think about a time when their mothers had been supportive. In the second, they looked at a photograph of their mothers, and in the third, they looked at a photograph of a romantic partner. In the control condition, participants were asked to think about an interaction with an acquaintance or look at a photograph of someone they didn't know.

After being reminded of their loved ones, people recovered faster and were less susceptible to negative thinking. At least one month after the experiment, those who benefited the most from being reminded of the loved ones reported fewer physical or psychological health problems.

The research has implications for mental and physical health, the authors say, because an inability to cope with negative memories -- that is, recalling them repeatedly -- is a major predictor of psychological and physical health problems from depression and general anxiety disorders to cardiovascular disease.

And the technique is easy to integrate into daily life, Selcuk said. "If you're moving to a new city, put a picture of your loved ones on the fridge. If you get a supportive text message from a loved one, just store it in your cell phone so you can retrieve it later."

The other authors are Cornell's Gül Günaydin, a Ph.D. candidate in the field of psychology, and Cindy Hazan, associate professor of human development, and Ethan Kross, assistant processor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

The research was supported by Cornell's Institute for the Social Sciences and the President's Council of Cornell Women.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, April 30, 2012

Anthony Ong


The social pain of loneliness produces changes in the body that mimic the aging process and increase the risk of heart disease, reports a recent Cornell study published in Psychology and Aging (27:1). Changes in cardiovascular functioning are part of normal aging, but loneliness appears to accelerate the process, say the researchers.

To investigate the effects of age and loneliness on cardiovascular health, the researchers measured cardiovascular reactivity and recovery in 91 young adults (18-30 years old) and 91 older adults (65-80 years old) who presented a speech and did mental arithmetic in a lab setting. Individual differences in perceived isolation (loneliness) were assessed before the tasks, and systolic and diastolic blood pressure measurements were taken before, during and after the tasks.

"The most striking thing we found was that the cardiovascular response of the lonely young adults to the social stressor task looked more like that of the nonlonely older adults," said lead author Anthony Ong, associate professor of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology and co-author of the study with Jeremy Rothstein '10, now at the Yale University School of Medicine Child Study Center, and Bert Uchino of the University of Utah.

As expected, they found that older adults had higher resting blood pressure, greater cardiovascular stress reactivity and longer cardiovascular recovery times compared with younger adults. Loneliness increased each of these measures but had even greater negative effects in older adults, putting them at the greatest risk. The recovery time of the lonely older adults, on average, was so delayed, they did not return to baseline levels during the two-hour-long follow-up period.

While prior studies had found a link between loneliness and stress-induced changes in cardiovascular responses, this is the first to look at young and older adults in the same study and is among a select few to analyze cardiovascular recovery rate.

"I think it's helpful to distinguish the emotional pangs that are associated with acute loneliness from the more chronic feelings of distress that accompany perceived deficits in the quality of our social relationships," Ong said.

"Viewed from this perspective, acute loneliness may be seen as adaptive, signaling us to repair social connections. However, it is the persistence of loneliness over time that may set the stage for health problems in later life," Ong said. "I think one of the most important and life-affirming messages of this research is the reminder that we all desire and need meaningful social connections."

The research was supported by the National Institute on Aging and the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Karene Booker

Anthony Ong

Anthony Ong

When a spouse or life partner dies, the survivor experiences more illness, mental health issues and earlier death than non-widowed counterparts, research has found. Now, a new Cornell prospective study reports that the culprit is not bereavement's negative emotions -- grief, distress, fear and anger -- that disrupt the stress response system and cause harmful biological changes. The study finds that it is the steep drop in positive emotions that does the damage.

Anthony Ong, assistant professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology, and colleagues report in the March issue of Health Psychology (30:2) that widowed participants showed a relative flattened daily rhythm of salivary cortisol (cortisol a marker for the stress response), compared with non-widowed controls, who showed the more normal pattern of a precipitous decline in cortisol over the course of a day.

Ong, who conducted the study with Thomas Fuller-Rowell, Ph.D. '10, now at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, clinical psychologist George Bonanno of Columbia University and David Almeida of Pennsylvania State University, said that other evidence is emerging to suggest that positive emotions influence daily cortisol rhythms. There is also evidence that recently widowed individuals experience a significant decline in positive emotion.

The study's findings suggest that the association between positive emotions and changes in the stress response system are linked to the negative health consequences often found among those who have lost a spouse.

Using data from a subsample of a national survey that included information from telephone interviews and surveys 10 years apart, the researchers identified 22 individuals who had been widowed within three years of the follow-up interview and had not remarried. The team compared this group with a random sample of 22 continuously married individuals selected to match the widowed adults in age, gender and education.

The survey data included measures of positive emotions (e.g., how much time participants felt cheerful, happy, calm and peaceful), and negative emotions (e.g., sadness and hopelessness). The survey also assessed such personality traits as extraversion (i.e., being outgoing and friendly) and neuroticism (i.e., moodiness, nervousness, anxiousness). Participants provided saliva samples, which are commonly used to measure stress levels.

The researchers' analysis revealed that changes in the level of positive emotion accounted for the changes in the cortisol slope found among those who had lost their spouse.

"These findings add to other recent evidence that positive emotions are beneficial during bereavement," says Ong.

While there is still more work to be done to further clarify the mechanism by which reductions in positive emotion are linked to disrupting the stress response system, this research provides insights into why supporting the bereavement process is important.

"Following loss of a spouse, social worlds contract," said Ong. "Failure to reconstruct these sources of enjoyment and mobilize adequate positive emotional resources in the aftermath of loss is a significant risk. Interventions designed to help bereaved individuals rebuild opportunities for positive emotional engagement are promising."

This study was supported in part by the National Institute on Aging and National Institute of Mental Health. The original study was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

By Karene Booker

Cary Reid


Anthony Ong


A person's outlook on life can minimize -- or aggravate -- a person's chronic pain, reports a new Cornell study.

"While pain is a fact of life for many," says Anthony Ong, assistant professor of human development at Cornell, "how people relate to their pain can either help or hinder healthy coping."

Ong and colleagues report that a person's habitual outlook on life and their ability to sustain positive emotions in the face of adversity or stress (what psychologists call psychological resilience) can make a dramatic difference in their experience of chronic pain, which afflicts millions of Americans, particularly the growing population of elderly.

The study, co-authored by M. Cary Reid, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Alex Zautra, professor of health psychology at Arizona State University, is published in the September 2010 issue of Psychology and Aging (Vol. 25, No. 3).

The researchers studied 72 women and 23 men, ages 52 to 95, at Weill Cornell who were diagnosed with chronic pain -- the average duration of pain was about eight years. The patients completed daily diaries for two weeks containing information about their emotions and experience of pain each day.

The researchers found a link between the patients' resilience, positive emotions and how much they then "catastrophized" about their pain. Some people with chronic pain tend have an exaggerated negative view of the actual or anticipated pain. This so-called "pain catastrophizing" makes the experience of pain worse and contributes to increased pain severity, disability and emotional distress, Ong said. It exacerbates anxiety and worry. Such negative emotions can potentially stimulate neural systems that produce increased sensitivity to pain. It can become a vicious cycle.

On the other hand, the researchers found that high-resilient individuals reported less day-to-day pain catastrophizing, compared with the low-resilient individuals. The findings also suggest that the day-to-day experience of positive emotions represent an active ingredient in what it means to be "resilient," Ong said.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that women with chronic pain tended to catastrophize more than men; there was also a stronger effect of positive emotion on pain catastrophizing in women.

"Daily experiences of positive emotions have the potential to counteract the sense of helplessness and focus on negativity that can make chronic pain so devastating," Ong said. "Based on the gender differences we found, interventions for women in particular may benefit from greater attention to sources of positive emotion."

The study was supported, in part, by the John A. Hartford Foundation and the National Institute on Aging.

Positive outlook also influences widowhood

Higher levels of psychological resilience before the death of a spouse appears to buffer the potentially devastating negative impact of spousal loss, reports a new Cornell study.

Widows and widowers with higher levels of psychological resilience before their spouses died had little change in their positive emotion several years later, compared with those with lower levels of pre-loss psychological resilience, who experienced marked declines in positive emotion following spousal loss.

"Our analysis demonstrated that psychological resilience is a significant predictor of positive emotion in the face of major life challenges," said lead author Anthony Ong, assistant professor of human development, whose studied is published in Psychology and Aging (25:3). "And the maintenance of positive emotion has long-term consequences for well-being and health."

Ong and colleagues Thomas Fuller-Rowell, Ph.D. '10, and clinical psychologist George Bonanno of Columbia University studied a subsample of adults in a survey that included information at two points in time, 10 years apart. During that time, 52 individuals had been widowed and had not remarried. This group was compared with 156 continuously married individuals selected to match the widowed adults in age, gender and education.

The survey included measures of positive emotions (e.g., how much time they felt cheerful), psychological resilience (e.g., the ability to see the positive side of a difficult situation), spousal strain and depressive symptoms.

The researchers also found that widowed participants who had had more conflict with their spouses had higher positive emotion scores than their low-strain counterparts. And vice versa, widowed adults who reported lower levels of prior spousal strain exhibited greater declines in positive emotion.

"It's important to realize that the impact of spousal loss may vary widely based on personal characteristics and marital context," Ong said. "Contrary to historical beliefs, the experience of positive emotion during bereavement is not unusual, but relatively common and may be a signal of healthy adjustment."

The study was supported, in part, by the National Institute on Aging and National Institute of Mental Health. The original study was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

-- Karene Booker


Positive emotions improve decision making, memory, and well-being of older adults.

For years, researchers have known that cognitive functions such as reasoning, memory, and problem solving decline with age. But a relatively new discovery is transforming conventional thinking about aging and cognition: as people age, their emotional wellbeing improves. 

“The processes that show decline are ones people need to navigate our everyday world— working memory, short-term memory, attention, the ability to represent visual images in our mind,” explained Joseph Mikels, assistant professor of human development. “All of the things we need to get around in life show significant decline starting in our 20s.” That is, except in one area: emotion. “Loss is ubiquitous across a number of cognitive domains, but older adults actually show an advantage over younger adults in the domain of emotion,” explained psychologist Anthony Ong, assistant professor of human development.  Read the full story

Anthony Ong

Print version

The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile (Kennedy, 1968)

What do we know about human well-being? The answer is surprising little, compared with what is known about human illness, dysfunction, and disease. Scientific progress on the positive side of human functioning—understanding what constitutes human flourishing and how it comes about—lags woefully behind strides on the negative side of health assessment, treatment, and research. But as Cornell developmental psychologist, Anthony Ong affirms, “The keys to the kingdom are changing hands.” Ong’s developmental research has documented the remarkable capacity of some individuals, from early life through old age, to thrive in the face of life’s challenges and setbacks.

Positive Emotions as a Basic Building Block of Flourishing in the Face of Adversity: Four Intersecting Pathways

In an effort to delineate the key features of human flourishing and resilience, Ong has conducted naturalistic studies and laboratory experiments that examine the enduring balm that positive emotions can provide for the stresses of life, even the stress of interpersonal loss. “When we first started to study the challenges associated with bereavement, the prevailing scientific view in the literature was that efforts to understand positive emotions should take a back seat while psychologists learn more about how to effectively treat the suffering generated by negative emotions, such as anxiety and depression. But then we began to ask the question, What if positive emotions could help to explain some of the problems that negative emotions produced?” Ong argues that positive emotions can have a wide range of effects on individual health and well-being. “When we look at the question in a multivariate way, we do not find a single, simple answer to the question of how positive emotions influence health. Instead, the most accurate assessment is to say that it is lifelong process that proceeds along at least four intersecting pathways.”

Positive emotions undo negative emotion arousal. Converging empirical work on positive emotions in Ong’s lab and others have raised the possibility that positive emotions are important facilitators of adaptive recovery, quieting or undoing the autonomic arousal generated by negative emotions. In laboratory studies in which positive and negative emotions are experimentally induced, Ong finds that positive emotions are linked to faster cardiovascular recovery from negative emotional arousal. Other investigations have confirmed the importance of positive emotions in fostering recovery from stressful major life events such as conjugal loss.

Positive emotions broaden attention and thinking. Ong is quick to point out that scientific evidence for the proposition that positive emotions broaden peoples’ modes of attention and thinking comes from two decades of pioneering experiments conducted by Cornell psychologist Alice Isen. “Professor Isen and her colleagues were the first to document that people experiencing positive affect show patterns of thought that are notably flexible, integrative, and efficient.” Ong is currently collaborating with Isen on a study funded by the National Institute of Aging (NIA) that explores the ways in which positive emotions may widen the array of thoughts and actions that come to mind when individuals are under stress.

Positive emotions fuel psychological resilience. What psychological traits are implicated in the generation and maintenance of positive emotions in the face of stress? An emerging adult literature suggests that individual differences in psychological resilience may account for the adaptive ways in which life stressors are encountered, managed, and transformed. Ong suggests that traits with functional properties associated with positive emotions (e.g., psychological resilience) may serve to strengthen resistance to stress by affording greater access to positive emotional resources, which, in turn, may help to provide a momentary respite from ongoing stressful experiences. In a series of coordinated experimental and individual difference studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Ong and his colleagues have found that high-resilient individuals exhibit faster physiological and emotional recovery from stress. In one study, higher trait resilience was linked to quicker cardiovascular recovery following a laboratory stressor. In another study, higher trait resilience was associated with lower subsequent depressive symptoms. Most notably, the effect of trait resilience on duration of cardiovascular reactivity and depressive symptoms was mediated by subjective reports of positive emotion. Although far from definitive, Ong notes that the available empirical evidence suggests that psychological resilience is associated with resistance to and recovery from stressful life events, and positive emotions may be the underlying mechanism by which high-resilient individuals achieve their adaptive outcomes.

Positive emotions trigger emotional and physical well-being. By undoing lingering negative emotions, broadening peoples’ mindsets, and fueling psychological resilience, Ong maintains that over time positive emotions should also enhance peoples’ emotional and physical well-being. The results of a longitudinal study of bereaved widows Ong recently conducted suggest that psychological resilience enhances the mood-boosting effects of positive emotion, triggering an upward spiral of prolonged positive emotionality. However, Ong adds that “the capacity for positive emotional engagement in the context of stress has consequences that are not just emotional but physiological.” Ong suggests that deficits in positive emotions create a subtle but persistent difference in cardiovascular function that sets the stage for trouble in later life. In a study published in the journal of Psychology and Aging, Ong notes that “Although greater cardiovascular reactivity is generally interpreted as a marker for risk, increases in blood pressure are not inherently pathogenic. It may be slow or prolonged recovery from stress responses that portends risk to older adults. By accelerating cardiovascular recovery from daily negative emotions, positive emotions may function in the service of health by averting delays in adaptation to subsequent stressors. These effects, moreover, may be more evident in older adults due to the stability and centrality of quality social ties in late life.”

Based on his research findings, Ong concludes that the notion that positive emotions have adaptive value is no longer contestable, but what precisely this means for individual lives and societies has not been fully appreciated. Ong adds though that one thing is for sure: “When our positive emotions are in short supply—when we feel hemmed in by negative emotions such as fear and sadness—we become stuck in a rut and painfully predictable. But when our positive emotions are in ample supply—when we feel lifted by the centripetal force of our closest relationships—we take off and become generative, resilient versions of ourselves.”

Tips for Promoting Positive Emotions
1) Find meaning in everyday life through (a) reframing adverse events in a positive light; (b) infusing ordinary events with positive value; and (c) pursing and attaining realistic goals.

2) Explore relaxation techniques (e.g., imagery, muscle, and meditation exercises) that create conditions conducive to experiencing contentment and inner calmness.

3) Make connections by reaching out to others.

4) Engage in activities that you enjoy and find intrinsically motivating.

5)Take care of yourself by eating right, getting enough sleep, and engaging in regular physical activity.

Further Resources
American Psychological Association (APA) Resilience Guide for Parents and Teachers

American Psychological Association (APA) Resilience Guide for Teens

American Psychological Association (APA) Stress Tip Sheet


Ong, A. D., & Allaire, J. (2005). Cardiovascular intraindividual variability in later life: The influence of social connectedness and positive emotions. Psychology and Aging, 20, 476-485.

Ong, A. D., & Bergeman, C. S. (2004a). The complexity of emotions in later life. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 59B, P55-60.

Ong, A. D., & Bergeman, C. S. (2004b). Resilience and adaptation to stress in later life: Empirical perspectives and conceptual implications. Ageing International, 29, 219-246.

Ong, A. D., Bergeman, C. S., & Bisconti, T. L. (2004). The role of daily positive emotions during conjugal bereavement. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 59B, P158-167.

Ong, A. D., Bergeman, C. S., Bisconti, T. L., & Wallace, K. A. (2006). Psychological resilience, positive emotions, and successful adaptation to stress in later life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 730-749.

Human Development Today e-News

Human Development Outreach & Extension

Andrew Reed

Print version

Consider the following scenario: The government offers you the opportunity to enroll in a heavily subsidized prescription drug coverage plan, through which you can purchase a wide range of medications at drastically reduced prices, all from the comfort of your home computer. But there’s a catch: there are over 50 plans to choose from, each of which can be assessed along a dozen attributes, from monthly premiums and deductibles to customer service ratings and pharmacy coverage. And, as if this decision weren’t daunting enough, now imagine that you are a senior citizen with little to no computer experience.

If this scenario seems troubling to you, you are not alone. In fact, over 40 million Americans aged 65 and older are offered this very decision on a yearly basis, and, of those, several million (over 4 million in 2008) fail to make any choice whatsoever (The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2008). Research evidence suggests that older adults, who are the fastest growing cohort in the US, may differ substantially from younger adults in how they make decisions. For example, although older adults may experience declines in basic-level cognitive abilities, which is why research is so essential, older adults’ decision making may be best conceptualized as a combination of particular vulnerabilities and, in some cases, particular strengths (see below and Strough, Mehta, McFall, & Schuller, 2008). Despite these research findings, seniors are being offered increasingly more decisions and choices. What can be done to help older adults make these complex decisions? Interdisciplinary research conducted by psychologist Dr. Joseph Mikels, in collaboration with economist Dr. Kosali Simon, offers several prescriptions for improving older adults’ decision-making.

Aging of the Mind and Heart

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about older adults? If you answered something along the lines of “cognitive decline,” you may not be too far from the truth. There is extensive research evidence of age-related deficits in a variety of mental processes, from working memory and information processing to reasoning and numerical abilities—all of which have been implicated as crucial to effective decision making (for a review, see Peters et al., 2007). Based on such findings, one would expect older adults to be inferior to their younger counterparts in decision making skills, and there is some evidence to support this notion.

However, in contrast to the bleak portrait of cognitive decline, most research depicts age-related changes in emotion in a more positive light. Older adults, relative to younger adults, demonstrate preserved, if not improved emotional functioning and regulation, and also report more frequent positive emotions and fewer negative emotions (for a review see Carstensen, Mikels, & Mather, 2006). In addition, while younger adults tend to focus more on negative information in the environment, older adults are more likely to focus on, and remember, positive information (Carstensen & Mikels, 2005). As such, while older adults’ cognitive abilities appear to deteriorate over time, their emotional skills are largely spared from age-related declines (e.g. Mikels et al., 2005).

Going with Your Gut

Do the best decisions come from the mind, or from the gut? It has been assumed by many western philosophers that the surest path to a sound decision is to gather and evaluate all available information about one’s options through careful, rational thinking. But recently, psychologists have suggested that conscious thinking about options may actually impair accuracy and satisfaction for certain decisions relative to “snap judgments” or decisions based on “unconscious” deliberation (Dijksterhuis et al., 2006). In addition, other “decision scientists” have called attention to the utility of emotion in the decision-making process (e.g. Slovic et al., 2002).

Research by Dr. Mikels addressed the age old debate between the supremacy of “rational” deliberation versus emotional intuitions from a life-span perspective. In light of the aforementioned diverging trajectories in the aging mind and heart, Dr. Mikels questioned whether older adults’ decision making might benefit from a reliance on the skills which are spared from age-related declines—namely emotional processing. In a series of laboratory-based studies, Dr. Mikels’ research team presented hypothetical healthcare-related decisions (choosing a physician, for example) to older and younger adults in which one of the alternatives was objectively superior to the others. When older adults used memory-based, detail-focused strategies to decide, their accuracy was, as expected, worse than that of younger adults. However, when older adults eschewed this “rational” approach to choosing in favor of one based on emotional reactions to the information, they were just as accurate as younger adults.

Thus, by focusing older adults’ attention to their “gut feelings,” Dr. Mikels was able to significantly enhance the quality of their decisions. In a separate study, older adults reported that their capacity to engage in effortful deliberation when making decisions, and their interest in doing so, were reduced relative to younger adults. The combined results of these studies suggest that older adults may not only prefer to “go with their gut,” but that their decisions may benefit immensely from doing so.

Follow-up studies of younger adults demonstrated that they may also benefit from relying on intuitive, emotion-based decision strategies for complex decisions. In particular, college students were more likely to choose the “best” option for complex decisions among vacations or apartments when focusing on their feelings, relative to students who relied on their memory for details about the alternatives. However, emotion-based decision strategies were no more accurate for domains in which students are relatively inexperienced, such as selecting hospitals or doctors. Thus, the benefits of emotion-based decisions may extend to adults of all ages, depending on the choice domain.

How Much Choice is Enough?

When it comes to choice in decision making, the contemporary mentality seems typified by a more-is-better mantra. But is this the case for all individuals? Research by Dr. Mikels and Dr. Simon suggests that while such a mentality may be part of the exuberance of youth, older adults neither desire, nor value, choice to the same extent that younger adults do (Reed, Mikels, & Simon, 2008). In a series of large-scale surveys conducted in Ithaca and New York City, hundreds of older adults (over 65) and undergraduate students reported how many options they wished to choose from in a variety of domains, from prescription drug plans to ice cream flavors. As expected, older adults desired on average less than half as many options as younger adults did, and this preference for choice continued to decline even among the oldest participants. That is, not only did the average 70 year old desire fewer options than a 20-year old, but 80-year olds desired even fewer options than 70-year olds. Additionally, older adults preferred only one-tenth as many options for Medicare Part D prescription drug plans as they are currently offered, on average, across the country (i.e. 5 versus 50).

Clearly then, older adults do not desire as much choice as they are offered, nor as much choice as younger adults do when making decisions. But how would they react to the possibility of having greater choice? In a separate study, Dr. Mikels’ research team measured self-reports of how much money older versus younger adults would be willing to pay for varying degrees of choice among prescription drug plans (i.e. 55, 25, 10, 5, or no options). Whereas younger adults were willing to pay increasingly more for additional options (roughly 50 dollars for every doubling of the choice set), older adults were largely unwilling to pay extra for more choice (Mikels, Reed, & Simon, under review).

But what is so bad about giving older adults too many options? In direct contrast to the more-is-better mentality, research suggests that excessive choice may be especially detrimental to decision making, as it not only undermines the quality of decisions, but also people’s motivation to choose anything at all (for a review see Botti & Iyengar, 2006). Individuals who are faced with dozens of options are less satisfied with their decisions than people who choose from relatively few options, even when the decisions appear as simple as selecting a variety of jam. And, given age-related declines in decision-making competence, this “choice overload” effect may be especially pronounced for older adults. As such, it would seem especially prudent to buffer older adults from these ill effects by tailoring decision environments more closely to their abilities and preferences.

What is the Best Way to Convey Information?

Having too much choice is only one of many factors contributing to the excessively complex decisions facing older adults. Another culprit in the onslaught of complex decisions may be the way in which these choices are presented. For example, when seniors select a Medicare Part D plan, they are not only choosing among dozens of options, but the plans are, by default, displayed on the website in only one manner—by cost to the average consumer. As a result of this one-size-fits-all approach, seniors may not be able to find the plan that best suits their particular health profiles. But how might we improve the system for presenting information about such crucial decisions? To combat the difficulties associated with choosing a Medicare Part D insurance plan, Dr. Simon developed innovative and consumer-friendly methods of presenting older adults with prescription drug plan information. Through the Cornell University Resource Education for Medicare Part D (CURxED) program, her team disseminated easy-to-read comparative information on each drug coverage plan to county extension offices, offices of aging, public libraries and the like. So as to facilitate the communication of plan differences to seniors, information sheets were compiled into three separate binders organized by insurance plan, illness (or combination of illnesses), and prescription drugs, respectively. By presenting various paper-based alternatives to the problematic electronic plan-based presentation of the Medicare Part D website, Dr. Simon’s team was able to convey to older adults the most cost-effective plans based on their individual backgrounds, and to encourage seniors to consider whether they should sign up for the benefit.


How can you apply these research findings to your daily life? If you are helping an older adult make a decision, you may want to consider the following suggestions:

Encourage going-with-your-gut when appropriate. For example, when helping older adults make complex decisions, it may be best to encourage them to focus on their feelings as opposed to the specific details. They may not only make better decisions, but also feel more satisfied with their choices. Similarly, when younger adults are making complex decisions for familiar domains, it may not hurt for them to “go with their gut” either.

Present age- and person-appropriate numbers of options. Older adults neither desire too many options, nor do they fare well when faced with complex decisions, so make sure that the choices you offer them are both reasonable and desired. For example, instead of listing all of the available home health care agencies in the area, first present the 5 or so most popular ones. If the person you are assisting isn’t satisfied with any of them, present an additional few options. By restricting the flow of information in this manner, you will increase the odds of making a high-quality, satisfying decision.

Give them the amount of information they want, not how much you think they want. Older adults’ decision-making strategies and preferences are significantly different from those of younger cohorts. As such, it is crucial to keep in mind that what seems reasonable and desirable to you may be overwhelming to older adults. The safest way of ensuring a good fit between the decisions presented to older adults and their individual characteristics is to simply ask them what they feel they can handle and/or prefer in terms of decision complexity.

Help seniors find the right information. There is a wealth of knowledge out there for seniors about critical healthcare decisions, including the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit. Unfortunately, most of it is on the Internet, which is an unfamiliar medium for the average older adult. Helping seniors effectively surf the web, especially on senior-specific sites such as the AARP website, may substantially increase their ability to make more informed and accurate healthcare decisions.

Don’t underestimate older adults’ abilities. Although there are certain types of decisions for which older adults do not perform as well as younger adults, most studies find little to no difference in the quality of decisions made by adults across age groups. It is now believed that older adults are able to effectively compensate for their diminished memory and processing resources through the use of accumulated knowledge and emotional skills. As such, discounting seniors’ abilities to make effective decisions for themselves based on common stereotypes of aging is not recommended.

Just because seniors prefer simple decisions doesn’t mean they cannot process complex ones. Research has shown that older adults are more selective than younger adults in their use of mental processing and deliberation. That is, they do not engage in effortful deliberation over judgments and decisions indiscriminately, but rather conserve them for major social and emotional decisions. The next time you notice an older person appear to skim over a decision instead of diving into the details, keep in mind that he or she may be doing so voluntarily, and not because of any mental impairment.

Further Resources

Emotion & Cognition Laboratory

Cornell University Resource Education for Medicare Part D

AARP (formerly American Association for Retired Persons)


Botti, S. & Iyengar, S.S. (2006). The Dark Side of Choice: When Choice Impairs Social Welfare. Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 25(1), 24-38.

Carstensen, L. L. & Mikels, J. A. (2005). At the intersection of emotion and cognition: Aging and the positivity effect. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(3), 117-121.

Carstensen, L. L., Mikels, J. A., & Mather, M. (2006). Aging and the intersection of cognition, motivation and emotion. In J. Birren & K. W. Schaie (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Aging (Sixth ed., pp. 343-362). San Diego: Academic Press.

Dijksterhuis, A., Bos, M.W., Nordgren, L.F., & van Baaren, R.B. (2006). On making the right choice: The deliberation-without-attention effect. Science, 311, 1005-1007.

Mikels, J. A., Larkin, G. R., Reuter-Lorenz, P. A., & Carstensen, L. L. (2005). Divergent trajectories in the aging mind: Changes in working memory for affective versus visual information with age. Psychology and Aging, 20(4), 542-553.

Mikels, J.A., Reed, A.E., & Simon, K.I. (2008). Older Adults Place Lower Value on Choice Relative to Young Adults. Manuscript under review.

Peters, E., Hess, T.M., Västfjäll, D., & Auman, C. (2007). Adult age differences in dual information processes: Implications for the role of affective and deliberative processes in older adults’ decision making. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2(1), 1-23.

Reed, A.E., Mikels, J.A., & Simon, K.I. (2008). Older adults prefer less choice than young adults. Psychology and Aging, 23(3), 671-675.

Slovic, P., Finucane, M., Peters, E., & MacGregor, D. G. (2002). The affect heuristic. In T. Gilovich, D. Griffin, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment (pp. 397-420). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Strough, J., Metha, C.M., McFall, J.P., & Schuller, K.L. (2008). Are older adults less subject to the sunk-cost fallacy than younger adults? Psychological Science, 19(7), 650-652.

The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. (2008). The Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit - An Updated Fact Sheet (KFF Publication No. 7044-08). Retrieved September 4, 2008, from http://www.kff.org/medicare/upload/7044-08.pdf.

Human Development Today e-News

Human Development Outreach & Extension