Emotional facial processing in younger and older adults

Joakim Svärd thesis cover


There is evidence that older adults have difficulty processing negative but not positive facial expressions. This positivity effect among older adults is expressed in attention to as well as in memory and recognition of emotional faces. In the present thesis, effects of stimulus properties (i.e., self ratings of valence, arousal, potency), context, and visual exploration were investigated.

In Study I, the aim was to investigate a happy face advantage seen in younger adults’ recognition and detection of facial expressions. Two recognition tasks showed that happy faces were better recognized than fearful and neutral faces. In addition, this superior effect was evident in early processing, indicating that happiness is an exceptional expression that is distinguished from other facial expressions. The objective of Study II was to investigate effects of age on subjective emotional impression (in terms of valence, arousal and potency) of angry and happy faces, and to examine whether any age differences were mirrored in measures of emotional behavior (attention, categorical perception, and memory). The results demonstrated that older adults perceived less arousal, potency, and valence than younger adults and that these differences were more pronounced for angry than happy faces. This was mirrored in larger age differences in attention, memory, and categorical perception for angry compared to happy faces. In Study III the aim was to investigate how linguistic context (i.e., written emotional labels) might reduce semantic confusability, and thereby facilitate facial expression recognition. The results showed that older adults were more reliant on linguistic context. Older and younger adults’ visual exploration patterns were investigated in Study IV.

Results showed that older adults spent proportionally more time attending to the mouth than to the eyes, which might explain their relatively lower recognition of fear, anger and sadness, but maintained happiness and disgust recognition.

In sum, subjective impression (i.e., arousal, potency), context, and visual exploration patterns interact with adult age and should be considered in research on effects of aging on facial expression processing.