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This entry covered the issue of continuity and/or change in aspects of emotional development over the life course of adults, including physiology, expressive behavior, subjective experience, emotion regulation, and emotion traits. The substantial literature that accumulated over the last two decades of the twentieth century, during an upsurge of research on emotions in the adult years, indicates that emotional capacities remain functional across the life span. There are, however, some changes, refinements, and upper boundaries to emotional development. The literature indicates that physiological patterns remain relatively unmodified, though the amplitude of responses appear somewhat reduced. In terms of phenomenology, however, the subjective aspects remain relatively intact in terms of intensity, hedonic balance, and frequency of distinct affective experiences. Changes include a decrease in the level and frequency of anger, which is a robust finding across cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. The data also indicate a curvilinear function with respect to emotional complexity, with a peak in middle age, although there are strong individual differences as well; complexity appears to undergo a change in later life, with a preference for positivity over complexity, though it is not yet clear that this is a true developmental change or an artifact of the fact that work on affective complexity has relied only on cross-sectional studies. Expressive behavior becomes more nuanced and complexly textured. In terms of the perception of affect, the ability to read emotional signals of a facial, vocal, or bodily nature may become less accurate with age, although it is difficult to ascertain with certainty since, again, the studies involved have been cross-sectional rather than longitudinal. The literature also suggests that people become more comfortable with their emotional selves as they age, that they are more likely to acknowledge their emotional states and to recognize and acknowledge the mixedness of affective life. Emotions apparently become more complex and experienced more keenly, even as emotion regulation capacities in general improve, in the sense that there is greater affective control in maintaining positive states and avoiding negative states. The organization of emotion in personality is a relatively enduring trait, although also responsive to environmental challenge, at which point both positive and negative transformations may evolve. All in all, the picture of emotional development across the adult years, based on empirical research rather than stereotype, is more positive than the earlier literature in the field indicated. Adults do not become more affectively blunted with age; neither is there a drift toward negative affect.

The above relatively sanguine picture of emotional aging is tempered by the recognition that at very advanced ages the picture may change. In any case, the literature thus far only begins to map the trajectory of emotional life in adults and there is clearly room for further research, especially longitudinal studies that will help clarify whether age differences observed in cross-sectional studies are really age changes or an artifact of cohort differences.



CARSTENSEN, L. L. "Social and Emotional Patterns in Adulthood: Support for Socioemotional Selectivity Theory. Psychology and Aging 7 (1992): 331–338.

LABOUVIE-VIEF, G.; HAKIN-LARSON, J.; DEVOE, M.; and SCHOEBERLEIN, S. "Emotions and Self-regulation: A Lifespan View." Human Development 32 (1989): 279–299.

LAWTON, M. P. "Environmental Proactivity and Affect in Older People." In The Social Psychology of Aging. Edited by S. Spacapan and S. Oskamp. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1989. Pages 135–163.

LEVENSON, R. W.; CARSTENSEN, L.; FRIESEN, W. V.; and EKMAN, P. "Emotion, Physiology and Expression in Old Age." Psychology and Aging 6 (1991): 28–35.

LEVENSON, R. W.; CARSTENSEN, L. L.; and GOTTMAN, J. M. "The Influence of Age and Gender on Affect, Physiology, and their Interrelations: A Study of Long-term Marriages." Journal of Social and Personality Psychology 67 (1994): 56–68.

MAGAI, C., and MCFADDEN, S. H., eds. The Role of Emotion in Social and Personality Development. New York: Plenum, 1995.

MAGAI, C. "Emotion Over the Lifecourse." In Handbook of the Psychology of Aging. Edited by J. Birren and K. W. Schaie. San Diego: Academic Press. Forthcoming.

SCHULZ, R., and HECKHAUSEN., J. "Emotion and Control: A Life-Span Perspective." In Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics. Series edited by P. Lawton. Vol. 17, Focus on Emotion and Adult Development. Volume edited by K. W. Schaie. New York: Springer, 1998. Pages 185–205.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 2Emotion - Historical Perspective, Emotions Over The Life Course, Summary