Studies of aging and the ability to recognize others’ emotional states tend to show that older adults are worse than younger adults at recognizing facial expressions of emotion, a pattern that parallels findings on non-social types of perception. Most of the previous research focused on the recognition of negative emotions such as anger and fear. In a study “Recognition of Posed and Spontaneous Dynamic Smiles in Young and Older Adults” recently published in Psychology and Aging, Derek Isaacowitz’s Emotion Laboratory set out to investigate possible aging effects in recognizing positive emotions; specifically, the ability to discriminate between posed or “fake” smiles and genuine smiles. They video-recorded different types of smiles (posed and genuine) from younger adults (mean age = 22) and older adults (mean age = 70). Then we showed those smiles to participants who judged whether the smiles were posed or genuine.
Across two studies, older adults were actually better at discriminating between posed and genuine smiles compared to younger adults. This is one of the only findings in the social perception literature suggesting an age difference favoring older individuals. One plausible reason why older adults may be better at distinguishing posed and spontaneous smiles is due to their greater experience in making these nuanced social judgments across the life span; this may then be a case where life experience can offset the effects of negative age-related change in cognition and perception.
This was the first known study to present younger and older adult videotaped smiles to both younger and older adult participants; using dynamic stimuli provides a more ecologically valid method of assessing social perception than using static pictures of faces. The findings are exciting because they suggest that while older adults may lose some ability to recognize the negative emotions of others, their ability to discriminate posed and genuine positive emotions may remain intact, or even improve.
The Emotion Laboratory is located in the Volen Center at Brandeis. First author Dr. Nora Murphy (now Assistant Professor of Psychology at Loyola Marymount University) conducted the research as a postdoctoral research fellow, under the supervision of Dr. Isaacowitz, and second author Jonathan Lehrfeld (Brandeis class of 2008) completed his Psychology senior honors thesis as part of the project. The research was funded by the National Institute of Aging.