Every day, we make decisions that arise from the complex interplay of thoughts and feelings. In order to arrive at a behavioral plan, we must hold in mind many facts, details, and emotions. There is general agreement that working memory is the cognitive system that we use to keep information active in our minds when making decisions. Given decades of research in cognitive aging, age-related decline in effortful processes, such as working memory, is undeniable. However, research in emotional domains suggests that emotional processes are relatively spared from age-related decline. These divergent trajectories have substantial implications for age differences in emotion-cognition interactions.
We have investigated how emotions interact with various cognitive processes, including attention and memory. Across the adult life span we have been especially interested in how positive versus negative emotions impact older versus younger adults differently.
Specifically with respect to working memory, we have focused on how emotions are processed in working memory. Although great strides have been made in understanding the underlying structure and function of working memory, psychologists have only recently considered the role of emotion in working memory. A provocative recent proposal suggests that there may be a separable subsystem in working memory that maintains emotion representations: affective working memory (Mikels & Reuter-Lorenz, in press). In support of this contention, we found that working memory for emotional information is dissociable from working memory for visual information (Mikels, Reuter-Lorenz, Beyer, & Fredrickson, 2008).
Importantly, this distinction between separable cognitive and affective processes in working memory has implications regarding preserved processing across the adult life span. Specifically, given the relative preservation of emotional processes in later life, would older adults show decline in affective working memory as they do in visual and verbal working memory? We found that while older adults showed typical decline in visual working memory, they did not show decline in affective working memory (Mikels, Larkin, Reuter-Lorenz, & Carstensen, 2005). Even more striking, although younger adults showed superior performance on trials with negative emotions, older adults showed superior performance on trials with positive emotions. These valence differences exemplify an emerging developmental pattern in which a disproportionate preference for negative information in youth shifts across adulthood to a disproportionate preference for positive information in later life – the positivity effect (Carstensen & Mikels, 2005; Mikels, Reed, Hardy, & Loeckenhoff, in press).