Special Aging Talk - “Emotion regulation in aging: What I used to think, what I think now, and where I think we should go next"

Derek Isaacowitz, Ph.D. Department of Psychology Northeastern University

In this talk, I will present the arc of my current thinking about age similarities and differences in emotion regulation. When I last visited in 2019, I argued that there might be substantial similarity among adult age groups in emotion regulation. Since then, we have conducted several studies that have added some nuance to my thinking. First, we have worked to distinguish emotion regulation strategies from tactics. There seem to be slight, but consistent age differences not in emotion regulation strategies but in tactics - how a strategy is implemented in a particular situation. Certain tactics are common across strategies; for example, some tactics involve upregulating positive aspects of situations, such as focusing on positive aspects of the environment or positive reappraisal, whereas others, such as distraction and detached reappraisal involve downregulating negativity. Second, we have considered  concrete aspects of emotional contexts in more detail, such as how tactics vary as a function of objective and subjective situational characteristics and how their use changed during COVID-19. We also have tested specific effects of context on age-related positivity effects in attention by comparing eye tracking in the home to the lab: divergent patterns of age differences in the home as compared to the lab suggest the importance of context in this behavior as well. Together, recent findings have changed my thinking, so that I now believe there are small age differences in emotion regulation but perhaps larger effects of context; future work will continue to investigate specific dimensions of context that may be most important, as well as how to leverage these age and context effects to understand and perhaps intervene on emotion regulation difficulties in cognitively-impaired older adults.