Younger adults are more adept at reading emotion in their partner's face than older adults. But when the partner isn't present, older and younger adults are equally able to detect their significant others' moods.
Or so suggests a new study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany.
"When judging others' emotions in real life, people do not exclusively rely on emotional expressions," said lead researcher Antje Rauers in a press release. "Instead, they use additional information, such as accumulated knowledge about a given situation and a particular person."
The findings, published in Psychological Science, indicate that older adults may evaluate their partners' emotions with the help of their acquired knowledge -- and not sensory cues.
To investigate how these processes vary with age, Rauers and colleagues Elisabeth Blanke and Michaela Riediger recruited 100 couples, some of whom were between the ages of 20 and 30 and some of whom were between the ages of 69 and 80. When they came to the lab, Rauer and colleagues first showed various faces to the participants, asking them to identify particular emotions.
"We started by replicating past research, showing that older adults are typically worse than younger adults at interpreting emotions through facial expressions," Rauers said in a press release.
Then the researchers took the study outside the lab, asking participants to take note of their own emotions and the emotions of their partners six times a day for two weeks using a cell phone.
Older adults were not as able as younger adults at reading the expressions in their partner's face -- when both partners were present, the older adults consistently fared worse in their estimations than their younger counterparts. But the age discrepancies vanished when the researchers looked at only those moments when the partners were away from one another. In those cases, both older and younger adults were equally good at estimating how their partner was feeling at a given moment.
“Reading emotional expressions may become more difficult with age, but using one’s knowledge about a familiar person remains a reliable strategy throughout adulthood,” Rauers said in a press release.
“This is really good news, given that the overwhelming majority of research findings testifies an age-related decline in many competencies,” Rauers added. “Our data suggest that knowing your loved ones well is an important resource that stays available throughout life.”
This isn't the only study related to facial expressions that's been publicized this year.
Other research shows that how you perceive emotions in others can have a real impact on how you feel yourself. As a result, training people to be biased to recognize happiness instead of anger in a facial expression can help to lower their own feelings of anger and aggression.
Yet another study found that men have a hard time reading women's facial expressions.