The Older, the Merrier: Older Adults Have Greater Positive Interpretation Biases

Christina Wu, BA

McLean Hospital – Research Assistant

Scientific Abstract

Background: The negative interpretation of ambiguous information has been shown to play a significant role in emotional disorders (Beard & Amir, 2009; Gonsalves et al., 2019). However, little research has examined how age might impact this information processing bias. Given that older adults show a relative preference for positive over negative information when compared to younger adults, i.e., the “positivity effect” (Reed & Carstensen, 2012), it is possible that negative interpretation bias may lessen with age. This project sought to replicate past findings regarding the positivity effect and test whether it generalizes to cognitive interpretation biases that are relevant for mental health.

Methods: 4,833 participants (M age = 31.8 years, age range 12 to 90 years) completed the study through our digital research platform, This study utilized a modified, forced choice version of the Word Sentence Association Paradigm which assessed cognitive interpretation bias by asking participants to pick which of two interpretations (positive and negative) best fits an ambiguous scenario (Beard & Amir, 2009; Gonsalves et al., 2019). We examined the association between age and percent positive judgments.

Results: Older age was significantly and linearly associated with a greater proportion of positive judgements across stimulus types (r(4832) = 0.25, p < 0.001). When comparing adolescents with older adults, the effect size (Cohen’s d) was moderate to large in magnitude (15 vs. 50, Cohen’s d = 0.64, p < 0.001).

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that older adults have a tendency to interpret ambiguous situations more positively than younger adults. This may explain the lower likelihood of new onset depression and anxiety in older adults relative to younger adults. When determining whether someone has a significant negative interpretation bias, age needs to be taken into account as normative levels of positive judgments are very different for older adults than younger adults.

Live Zoom Session – March 9th

research Areas


Christina Y. Wu, BA, Irene Xu, BA, Courtney Beard, PhD, Laura T. Germine, PhD

Principal Investigator

Laura Germine, PhD