Older adults report gains in domains including well-being and life satisfaction, despite experiencing declines in socio-emotional perception, a skill that likely underlies performance in these domains. The primary goal of this proposal is to advance our understanding of older adults' everyday socio-emotional perception skills using an approach that identifies the socio-emotional judgments older adults make in their everyday lives as a means to create ecologically valid stimuli for use in laboratory settings. Specifically, the proposed research will investigate older adults' perception of social and emotional states and traits that are hidden or expressed through a series of studies that will collectively assess: 1) older adults' everyday socio-emotional perception skills, and 2) age differences in the perception of social and emotional states and traits on laboratory tasks that approximate everyday skills. In Study 1, an online survey design will be employed to catalogue the types of social and emotional state and trait judgments older and younger adults report making in real life. Participants will also report whether such judgments are important to their social functioning, and whether they perceive their judgments as successful. Study 2 will use these findings to design stimuli for a laboratory task that assess the perception of emotional states that are hidden or expressed. This task will then be administered to a sample of younger and older adults in Study 3 to determine whether older adults demonstrate advantages in accurately perceiving emotional states and in determining whether these states are hidden or expressed as compared to younger adults on a task that is ecologically valid and representative of everyday skill. Study 4 will again draw on findings from Study 1 to design ecologically valid stimuli for a laboratory task that assesses the perception of social traits, including the trait of competence; stimuli will thus include cases where a target's competence is expressed or hidden from the perceiver. This task will subsequently be administered in Study 5 to a sample of younger and older adults to test for age differences in the perception of competence and the discrimination between images displaying expressed competence versus hidden competence. Together, results from these studies will inform our understanding of older adults' skills in perceiving others' emotional states and social traits. It is likely that patterns of age-related decline in soio-emotional perception often observed in the literature exist at least in part as a function of laboratory methods that do not adequately reflect older adults' true skills in daily life. Thus, th proposed research may present a more accurate and also more positive view of emotion and aging. Specifically, the proposed research may demonstrate that older adults experience gains in socio-emotional perception skills compared to younger adults, as these skills are integral to functioning in other domains in which older adults have demonstrated gains. Further, the proposed research contributes to the field by proposing an ecologically valid approach to examine age differences in socio-emotional perception in the laboratory that may be adopted by other researchers.
The findings from these studies may demonstrate that older adults do judge a variety of social and emotional states and traits during everyday life, and are able to maintain skills and even demonstrate advantages in making these judgments relative to younger adults when lab studies investigate these everyday skills. This knowledge is important for public health because such results will help to reduce deleterious negative stereotypes of the elderly as emotionally incompetent. The proposed studies will also guide future research on age differences in socio-emotional perception by proposing an ecologically-informed approach that will likely enhance older adults' perception skills as assessed in the laboratory.
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