Young can't read older emotions

Younger people may make more mistakes when judging the emotions of older folks, a new study has found.

To younger adults, age-related changes, such as wrinkles and folds, look like facial expressions, so they may interfere with the perception of emotion in an older face and perhaps convey the wrong message.

In the study, published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers asked 65 college students to view computer-generated black and white faces. They viewed faces of three men and three women who were young (ages 19 to 21 years) or old (ages 76 to 83 years) displaying one of four facial expressions: neutral, happy, sad, or angry.

Participants were asked to rate the emotional expression on the person's face on a scale from one for ‘not at all intense’ to seven for ‘very intense’.

Young people were most accurate in recognising an angry expression and least accurate in judging sadness in old faces. They perceived happy faces in older people as showing less overall emotion than a younger person.

The study found a facial expression, such as pure anger, on an older face is perceived differently, and less clearly, than the very same expression displayed on a younger person.

“In the case of the older expresser, the anger is seen as mixed with other emotions,” lead author Dr Ursula Hess, a professor of psychology at Humboldt-University in Berlin, Germany, says.

“Clearly it makes a difference whether you think someone is just angry or someone is both angry and sad,” she adds.

Even when it came to a neutral face, volunteers perceived that there was more emotion in a neutral older face than in a younger one.

Researchers suggest wrinkles do impact the communication of emotion.

“We may make mistakes when judging the emotions of the elderly,” Dr Hess says. “This may result in less harmonious interactions,” she adds.

The age of the observers also likely made a difference in the results.

“Had the study participants been closer in age to the older faces, they would have had more experience at recognising older faces to overcome the difficulties posed by a less clear emotional signal, Dr Hess explains.

Can you read other people’s emotions by looking at their facial expressions? Share your thoughts by commenting below.