Category: Aging and Older Adults
Accurate perception of information conveyed by a face is fundamentally adaptive, increasing our changes of survival by allowing us to interpret dynamic and potentially threatening situations. From an ecological perspective, facial expressions guide us to take social action (Gibson, 1979; Reed, 1996). Since facial expressions are an accurate predictor of future behavior, correctly identifying and avoiding an angry face may allow us to avoid harm, and greeting a happy face openly may incur greater resources and reproductive fitness (Andrew, 1963; Harris et al., 2016).
A vast literature has reported an age-related shift in the ability to recognize negative emotions. A recent review confirmed that older adults are less accurate in recognizing anger, sadness, and to some extent, fear (Isaacowitz et al., 2007). In a cross-sectional study exploring age-related differences in emotion recognition ability, results revealed that decline in recognition of sadness and anger start around 30 years of age (Mill et al., 2009).
Most behavioral tasks were not designed to cleanly dissociate between emotion categories, as responses are confounded across emotion types. The current study aimed to examine sensitivity to the intensity of emotional face expressions (emotional sensitivity: ES) across the lifespan, in a set of three tasks that were matched for sensitivity and reliably and could cleanly dissociate between these three emotion categories. In the ES tasks, participants had to discriminate which of a pair of faces was more fearful (fear sensitivity task), angry (anger sensitivity task), or happy (happiness sensitivity task). Participants were 9546 visitors to the website http://testmybrain.org. Average age of our sample was 27.59 (SD = 12.33, range = 10-85). To evaluate both development and aging, we analyzed data based on age group: 10-30 (development), 31-85 (aging). We expected that the development group would show better ES scores with age, and that aging group would show a decline in ES for anger and fear. We also explored the impact of gender, ethnicity, and education on ES.
Results showed a curvilinear relationship between age and ES. In the development group, participants had significantly higher ES scores for angry, fearful, and happy faces (p < .001) as they aged. In the aging group, we saw the opposite trend; increased age was associated with decreased ES (p < .01). Effects were stronger for anger and fear than for happiness, despite comparable psychometrics. Women were more emotionally sensitive than men for angry and fearful expressions, but the difference in ES between genders did not occur for happy faces. ES scores by face type will be presented graphically across the lifespan. Clinical and theoretical implications of the results will be discussed.