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Positive Emotion in Language Production: Age Differences in Emotional Valence of Stories Elise Rosa and Deborah Burke Pomona College. Method- Experiment 2 Participants 16 college student ( M = 18.69 years, 8 men and 8 women) and 16 healthy older adults ( M = 72.87 years, 11 women and 5 men).

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Positive Emotion in Language Production: Age Differences in Emotional Valence of StoriesElise Rosa and Deborah BurkePomona College

Method- Experiment 2

  • Participants
  • 16 college student (M = 18.69 years, 8 men and 8 women) and 16 healthy older adults (M = 72.87 years, 11 women and 5 men).
  • Materials
  • The 200 transcripts from Experiment 1 were divided into 4 groups of 50 stories each, 25 from older adults and 25 from young adults.
  • A rating sheet with 50 scales of 1-5 for positive and 1-5 for negative emotion.
  • Procedure
  • Participants were given one of the 4 packets of 50 stories and a rating sheet Instructions were to read each story and mark a rating on the corresponding positive and negative scales for each story.

Results- Experiment 2

    • Ratings were analyzed in an ANOVA with rater age (young, old), storyteller age (young, old), and rating (positive, negative) as variables.
    • There was a main effect of rater age because older adults gave higher positive and negative ratings than young adults (M = 2.44 and 2..77 for young and older adults respectively).
    • Storyteller age interacted with positive and negative ratings, such that older storytellers were rated as more positive than younger storytellers but less negative, F(1,30) = 9.46, p < .04. See Figure 3.

Figure 3: Mean positive and negative emotion ratings

Conclusions- Experiment 2

  • Both young and older adults rated older adults stories as more positive and less negative than younger adults’.
  • Older adults rated stories as more positive and more negative than younger adults, suggesting they are more sensitive to emotional content of the story


Charles, S.T., Reynolds, C.A., & Gatz, M. (2001). Age-related differences and change in positive and negative

affect over twenty-three years. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 136-151.

James, L.E., Burke, D.M., Austin, A., & Hulme, E. (1998). Production and perception of "verbosity" in younger and

older adults. Psychology and Aging, 13, 355-367.Mather, M. & Carstensen, L.L. (2005). Aging and motivated cognition: The positivity effect in attention and memory.

Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9 (October): 496-502.

Mroczek, D.K. & Kolarz, C.M. (1998). The effect of age on positive and negative affect: A developmental

perspective on happiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1333-1349.

Pasupathi, M., Henry, R. & Carstensen, L.L. (2002). Age and ethnicity differences in storytelling to young children:

Emotionality, relationality and socialization. Psychology and Aging, 17, 610-621.

Pennebaker, J.W., Booth, R. J., Francis, M. E. (2001). LIWC [computer software].


Older adults report increased feelings of well-being, greater contentment and less anxiety in their daily lives compared to young adults (Charles, Reynolds, and Gatz, 2001; Mroczek & Kolarz, 1998). Socioemotional selectivity theory proposes that emotional gratification becomes more important towards the end of the life span and accordingly older adults tend to emphasize positive rather than negative emotions compared to young adults (e.g., Mather & Carstensen, 2005). Within this framework, older adults’ emotional goals shape cognitive processes so that they maximize meaningful emotional experience. The proposed positivity bias in cognitive processing has been supported in some studies of attention and memory performance, but there has been little investigation of an age-related positivity bias in language production.

The present study investigates language production in the form of story telling because stories provide an opportunity to express emotional goals. Indeed, James, Burke, Austen & Hulme (1998) found that older adults’ autobiographical stories were rated as more interesting than young adults’ and were distinguished by their emphasis on finding meaning in events. Pasupathi, Henry and Carstensen (2002) reported that older adults’ stories for children used fewer negative words than younger adults’ although there were no age differences in the use of positive emotion words. The present research investigates younger and older adults’ production of positive and negative emotion words in their stories about neutral picture stimuli.

Method- Experiment 1

  • Participants
    • 20 college students (M = 20.3 years, 12 men and 8 women) and 20 healthy older adults (M = 71.25 years, 13 women and 7 men).
  • Materials
    • 5 pictures from the International Affective Picture System set. All featured people with neutral expressions on their faces as shown in the two examples below.
    • All pictures were presented as color photocopies.
  • Procedure
    • Participants were tested individually, and were informed they would be shown 5 pictures and asked to make up a 3-5 minutes story about each one.
    • They were told the stories should be fictional, but could reflect events from their own lives if they wished. They were presented with a list of questions to help them form their stories as indicated below:

What is happening?

Who are the people?

What has led up to this situation?

What are the feelings of the person or people?

    • Participants’ stories were recorded with a tape recorder.
    • Stories were transcribed with filler words (um, okay) and restarts removed.
  • The Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) program was used to measure the positive and negative emotion words in the stories.
  • This program has a dictionary of over 4,500 words and word stems that are in turn categorized into different subsets based on their qualities.
  • The program produces percentage scores for various aspects of the text that is entered.
  • Positive and negative emotion scores were obtained for each story and these were averaged for the 5 stories yielding a mean positive score and a mean negative score for each participant.

Results- Experiment 1

    • Positive Emotion- Older adults produced a greater percentage of positive emotion words (M = 2.44) in their stories than young adults (M = 1.76), t = 2.58, p < .014. There was no age difference in percent of negative words (M = 1.00 and M = 1.02 for older and young adults, respectively).

Figure 1: Mean percentage positive emotion words

Error bars = 1 standard deviation

Figure 2: Mean percentage negative emotion words

Error bars = 1 standard deviation

Conclusions- Experiment 1

  • Older adults use more positive words in stories about neutral stimuli than do young adults.
  • Young and older adults do not differ significantly in their use of negative emotion in stories about neutral stimuli.