Sadness Response Strengthens With Age

In study, older people reacted more strongly to sad scenes than twentysomethings did.

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By Laura Sanders, Science News

As people grow older, sad films seem sadder.

In a recent study, people in their sixties felt sadder than people in their twenties did after viewing an emotionally distressing scene from a movie. This heightened emotional response to sorrow may reflect a greater compassion for other people and may strengthen social bonds, researchers propose.

The finding is an important contribution to emotion studies because it adds to a growing body of work showing that emotions don’t deteriorate, says Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen, who was not involved in the research. “One of the important findings of this is that the emotion system is in no way broken in old age,” she says.

To explore how feelings of sadness change with age, researchers led by Robert Levenson of the University of California, Berkeley brought 222 study participants into the laboratory to watch neutral, disgusting or sad movie clips. The volunteers made up three age groups: young people in their twenties, middle-aged people in their forties, and older people in their sixties. Before watching the movies, participants were hooked up to monitors that recorded physiological responses such as blood pressure, heart rate and breathing patterns.  

Levenson and his team chose two gut-wrenchingly sad scenes to elicit responses: In the first clip, from the movie 21 Grams, a mother is told of the deaths of her two young daughters. The second scene, from The Champ, depicts a young boy watching his father die after a boxing match. (The disgusting clips were also well chosen: They showed a woman eating horse rectum and a man sucking fluid from a cow’s intestines, both on NBC’s Fear Factor. The neutral scene showed two men talking about nothing in the absurdist film Stranger than Paradise.)

In addition to measuring physiological responses to the movie clips, the researchers asked people to describe how they felt. People in their sixties reported stronger feelings of sadness when they watched the sad scenes than did middle-aged or young people, the team found. Older people and middle-aged people also had stronger physiological responses to sad movies than did people in their twenties. People responded similarly to the disgusting scenes, regardless of age.

The findings, which appeared online July 22 in Social Cognition and Affective Neuroscience, suggest that sadness changes with age in a way that’s different than other emotions. “Sadness travels its own special route. In particular, sadness, we think, has a tendency to get a little sharper,” Levenson says.

Earlier studies, including some by Carstensen, have reported that in day-to-day life older people report experiencing more positive emotions than younger people. One explanation for this, says Carstensen, is that older people are more selective, so they may simply avoid sad situations more effectively than young people. And it’s plausible that overall, a person can be very happy and at the same time have a strong sadness response, Levenson says.

One reason for this keener sense of sadness might be that older people have experienced more losses and might be sensitized to sorrow, but Levenson doesn’t think so. When the researchers controlled for whether people had experienced major losses in their lives, the increased response remained.

Instead, Levenson thinks the heightened sadness response might be beneficial for maintaining and strengthening social ties. Sadness “is a very functional emotion,” Levenson says. “It’s an emotion that really brings people towards us and motivates them to help us.”

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