Identifying and labeling emotions is one area in which older and younger people differ, but the reason why is still unclear. A recent study utilized a unique experiment to compare how people of different ages categorized emotional expressions.
A mix of 43 older adults and 42 young adults (average ages 74 and 22, respectively) participated in the study. Participants were asked to sort 120 photographs of people’s faces into piles based on the emotion depicted in each photograph. The depicted emotions included happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and neutral. However, participants were not given this information; they could sort the photos in whatever way they desired, and then label each pile they created.
On average, both young and older adults created about seven piles (although photos had depicted only six different emotions). Across the sample, however, the labeled piles clustered into the same six categories as had been depicted. Additionally, both groups tended to make the same error—categorizing anger as disgust or vice versa, which was observed in past studies as well.
The primary finding was that age differences were found in consistency—or sorting the same photos into the same piles—for every emotion except disgust. Older adults tended to be less consistent than younger adults for each of these five emotions. The researchers also explored consistency relative to the semantic complexity of labels participants created (e.g., sorrowful vs. sad). They found that participants using more semantic complexity in labeling were less consistent in sorting photos to the appropriate category. Further, participants using more complex labels tended to be older adults.
Lower overall consistency for older adults suggests that older adults may have a deeper understanding of emotional expressions. This is supported by their use of more complex labels, as well as past research that older adults rely more on context than younger adults to identify the correct emotion. Notably, context was missing from the photos in this study. Research will continue, but for now it appears older adults do have a greater appreciation for the complexities of human emotion.
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Hoemann K, Vicaria IM, Gendron M, Stanley JT. Introducing a face sort paradigm to evaluate age differences in emotion perception. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. 2021;76(7):1272-1281.