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Psychol Aging. 2014 Jun;29(2):284-96. doi: 10.1037/a0036302.

Age-related and death-related differences in emotional complexity.

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Department of Gerontology, University of Haifa.
Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences, Bar-Ilan University.
School of Social Work, Ariel University.
Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto.
Department of Education and Psychology, Open University.
School of Psychological Sciences.


The present study aimed to examine an aspect of emotional complexity as seen in covariation between retrospective judgments of positive and negative affects. We assume that individuals can experience positive affect independently of negative affect. Theories argue that emotional complexity increases in old age, but research shows mixed evidence. Additionally, emotional complexity has been shown to decrease in situations prevalent in old age, such as physical illness and disability. Integrating distinct effects of age and distance to death, we propose that emotional complexity may remain intact or even increase in old age, and yet it decreases in light of functional deterioration shortly before death. The current research examined whether emotional complexity decreases as a function of subjective perception of closeness to death (subjective survival probability) or actual closeness to death. We used 3 large-scale databases: 2 cross-sectional (SHARE, N = 17,437, mean age = 64; HRS, N = 6,032, mean age = 67) and 1 longitudinal (CALAS, N = 1,310, mean age at baseline = 83). Hierarchical multiple regressions and multilevel models showed that respondents who perceived themselves as closer to death or were actually closer to death showed lower emotional complexity (a stronger negative correlation between positive and negative affects). Age and emotional complexity were unrelated or positively related, depending on the sample. Findings remained the same after controlling for demographic characteristics, as well as physical and cognitive functioning. The results indicate that both subjective and objective closeness to death are associated with lower emotional complexity. This death-related decrease in emotional complexity is discussed within current theories of aging.

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