Category: Adult Depression / Dysthymia

PS2- #C74 - Effect of Age and Depression Severity on Emotion Recognition Performance in Adult Outpatients With Depression and Anxiety

Friday, Nov 17
9:45 AM – 10:45 AM
Location: Indigo Ballroom CDGH, Level 2, Indigo Level

Keywords: Adult Depression | Cognitive Biases / Distortions | Emotion

The ability to accurately recognize others’ emotional facial expressions is important in social interactions (e.g., Joormann et al., 2006). Cognitive biases in emotion recognition (ER) have been studied across a range of psychiatric conditions including schizophrenia, autism, depression, and anxiety. Individuals with depression have demonstrated a tendency to under-identify positive affect in subtle facial expressions (Yoon, Joormann, & Gotlib, 2009). In another study, depressed adolescents were more accurate for sad faces and less accurate for happy, particularly low-intensity happy faces, relative to healthy youth (Auerbach et al., 2015). Biases in judging facial expressions may lead to interpersonal problems that maintain depression, including perceived lack of reinforcement and decreased experience of social support (Gotlib & Hammen, 1992). Changes in ability to recognize emotional faces facilitate the prediction or monitoring of response to treatment in depression (Bourke et al., 2010; Venn et al., 2005).


The primary aim of the present study was to examine ER in a sample of outpatients with anxiety and mood disorders (N = 644). A morphed faces task was used to evaluate ER. Participants were presented with faces expressing increasing degrees of emotional intensity, slowly changing from a neutral to a full-intensity happy, sad, fearful, or angry expression. Symptoms were assessed via self-report questionnaires and a diagnostic interview. We predicted that increasing depression severity would be associated with slower and less accurate identification of happy faces. We also expected that increased age would be associated with decreased ER performance across face types.


Results showed that as depression severity increased, participants were better at accurately identifying sad faces at lower intensities (p < .05). Depression severity did not impact accuracy or intensity of ER for happy faces. Age played a significant role in ER for speed in correct identification of sad and fearful faces, as well as overall accuracy of ER (p < .05). As participants aged, they showed significantly slower speed and more inaccuracies in recognizing sad and fearful faces. This finding is consistent with a vast literature reporting an age-related shift in the ability to recognize negative emotions. This study expands on previous work by looking at relationships between ER and mood symptoms in a large clinical sample. Clinical and theoretical implications of the results will be discussed.

Lauren A. Rutter

McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School
Belmont, Massachusetts

Timothy A. Brown

Boston University