I'm specifically interested in whether or not their maximum ability to feel an emotion decreases as they grow older (so by that I'm meaning - let's ignore the effects of tolerance induced by life experience for now).


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  • $\begingroup$ Could you elaborate a bit on what you mean by ability to feel an emotion and how you think this question could be answered in an empirical way? $\endgroup$ – Jeromy Anglim Jan 22 '12 at 2:35
  • $\begingroup$ Okay. By ability to feel emotion: I mean emotions like anger, happiness, and sadness. By how we can answer this empirically - this is sort of hard to answer. Hm - I'll ask this here: cogsci.stackexchange.com/questions/124/… $\endgroup$ – InquilineKea Jan 22 '12 at 7:00
  • $\begingroup$ I understand you mean emotions like anger, etc. But what do you mean by "ability to feel"? Also, is there a particular age range that you are thinking about e.g., childhood? teenagers? or younger adult versus older adult? $\endgroup$ – Jeromy Anglim Jan 23 '12 at 0:46

Deconstructing your question

  • There is a difference between the ability to experience an emotion and tendency to experience an emotion.
  • There is a difference between proportion of time that an individual experiences an emotion and the intensity of that emotion.
  • Obviously, you could take many approaches to answering this question. Emotions can be viewed from various perspectives including physiological, psychological, and behavioural.

Some empirical evidence

I did a quick search on Google Scholar for 'panas longitudinal study'

PANAS (see Crawford and Henry 2004, PDF for a a review) is a commonly used self-report questionnaire that aims to measure the frequency with which various positive and negative emotions have been experienced over a given time frame.

I found this interesting article by Kunzmann, Little, and Smith 2000, PDF called "Is age-related stability of subjective well-being a paradox? Cross-sectional and longitudinal evidence from the Berlin Aging Study".

The opening section of the article reviews the empirical literature regarding stability and age related trends in self-reported positive and negative affect. The following are a few interesting points from the article:

  • Costa et al. 1987 found correlations over 10 years for positive and negative affect of r =.42 and r=.43 respectively. I.e., there is fair amount of stability in individual differences in the experience of emotions.
  • When Kunzmann et al's review of the literature they cite several large scale studies that showed at the group-level no age effect on negative affect, although a couple of studies suggested their might be a small decline in negative affect with age. These studies varied in the years of life that were of interest, but typically looked at differences between early, middle and older adulthood.
  • Kunzmann et al also review the evidence for positive affect. The story sounds a little complicated with some studies suggesting a decline in positive affect and others not.
  • As I've seen before, it seems like cross sectional studies sometimes show bigger effects than longitudinal studies.

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