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Emotional intelligence peaks as we enter our
60s, research suggests
December 2010— Older
people have a hard time keeping a lid on
their feelings, especially when viewing
heartbreaking or disgusting scenes in movies
and reality shows, psychologists have found.
But they're better than their younger
counterparts at seeing the positive side of
a stressful situation and empathizing with
the less fortunate, according to research
from the University of California, Berkeley.
A team of researchers led by UC Berkeley
psychologist Robert Levenson is tracking how
our emotional strategies and responses
change as we age. Their findings – published
over the past year in peer-review journals –
support the theory that emotional
intelligence and cognitive skills can
actually sharpen as we enter our 60s, giving
older people an advantage in the workplace
and in personal relationships.
"Increasingly, it appears that the meaning
of late life centers on social relationships
and caring for and being cared for by
others," Levenson said. "Evolution seems to
have tuned our nervous systems in ways that
are optimal for these kinds of interpersonal
and compassionate activities as we age."
In the first study, researchers looked at
how 144 healthy adults in their 20s, 40s and
60s reacted to neutral, sad and disgusting
film clips. In particular, they examined how
participants used techniques known as
"detached appraisal," "positive reappraisal"
and "behavior suppression." Heading up that
study was Michelle Shiota, now an assistant
professor of psychology at Arizona State
University. The findings were published in
the journal, Psychology
The researchers monitored the blood
pressure, heart rates, perspiration and
breathing patterns of participants as they
watched a scene from the movie "21 Grams,"
in which a mother learns her daughters have
died in a car accident; and from "The
Champ," in which a boy watches his mentor
die after a boxing match. They also watched
repugnant scenes from "Fear Factor."
For detached appraisal, participants were
asked to adopt an objective, unemotional
attitude. For positive reappraisal, they
were told to focus on the positive aspects
of what they were seeing. And for behavior
suppression, they were instructed not to
show any emotion.
Older people, it turned out, were the best
at reinterpreting negative scenes in
positive ways using positive reappraisal, a
coping mechanism that draws heavily on life
experience and lessons learned.
By contrast, the study's younger and
middle-aged participants were better at
using "detached appraisal" to tune out and
divert attention away from the unpleasant
films. This approach draws heavily on the
prefrontal brain's "executive function," a
mechanism responsible for memory, planning
and impulse control and that diminishes as
Meanwhile, all three age groups were equally
skilled at using behavior suppression to
clamp down on their emotional responses.
"Earlier research has shown that behavior
suppression is not a very healthy way to
control emotions," Levenson said.
The study concludes that, "older adults may
be better served by staying socially engaged
and using positive reappraisal to deal with
stressful challenging situations rather than
disconnecting from situations that offer
opportunities to enhance quality of life."
In another study, published in the July
issue of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective
researchers used similar methods to test how
our sensitivity to sadness changes as we
In that experiment, 222 healthy adults in
their 20s, 40s and 60s were wired with
physiological sensors and instructed to view
the same film clips from "21 Grams" and "The
Champ." The older cohort showed more sadness
in reaction to emotionally charged scenes,
compared to their younger counterparts.
"In late life, individuals often adopt
different perspectives and goals that focus
more on close interpersonal relationships,"
said UC Berkeley psychologist Benjamin
Seider, lead author of the study. "By doing
so, they become increasingly sensitized to
sadness because the shared experience of
sadness leads to greater intimacy in
Contrary to popular belief, heightened
sensitivity to sadness does not indicate a
higher risk for depression in the context of
Seider's study, but is actually a healthy
sign, Levenson pointed out.
"Sadness can be a particularly meaningful
and helpful emotion in late life, as we are
inevitably confronted with and need to deal
with the losses we experience in our own
life and with the need to give comfort to
others," Levenson said.