Emotion recognition and expression are an essential part of human interaction. It is hard to imagine any significant interaction in which no emotions are communicated and the consequences of emotional miscommunications can be far reaching. Health care settings are one example of interactions where the elderly routinely interact with younger people and where efficient emotional communication is essential. If emotion expressions are misidentified, this may not only lead to misdiagnosis, but can also have far broader effects, such as a loss of trust on the part of the elderly. The extant research has largely focused on the question of whether the elderly have emotion recognition deficits. However, emotion communication is a two way street and it is equally important that younger people understand the emotion expressions of older people. This may be a more difficult task than is generally assumed. Specifically, with age the face changes in ways that reduce the clarity of emotion expressions. Wrinkles and facial folds can mimic some expressions (for example, downturned corners of the mouth may look sad) or interfere with the clear expression of other emotions by confusing the observer. Further, the stereotypes that young perceivers hold regarding the emotional lives of the elderly may bias the emotional attributions they make to older persons. Both processes in turn can lead to a reduction in empathy. Specifically, a crucial element of empathic responding, mimicry reactions (i.e., the automatic and unconscious imitation of the nonverbal behavior of others that serves to facilitate feelings of rapport and affiliation in social interaction) can be disturbed both by lack of signal clarity and by stereotype processes. The studies proposed herein examine how emotion expressions shown by the elderly are perceived and reacted to by younger persons. One set of studies will focus on the capacity of younger individuals to accurately label such emotion expressions. This set of studies will use innovative computer based approaches that overcome limitations that have hindered research on this question in the past, such as the absence of controlled emotion expressions by elderly models and the issue of objective assessment of the expression. Emotional stereotypes that young adults hold regarding the emotional lives and responses of older individuals will also be assessed and their role in biasing the perception of emotion expressions will be investigated. Another set of studies will focus on empathic responding. In these studies we will assess to what degree younger individuals imitate the facial and postural emotion expressions of older individuals. The absence of such imitation is felt as a lack of rapport and renders interactions less pleasant and welcoming. This research will be the first aimed at clarifying our understanding of the way younger people perceive and react to the emotions of older people - a question of increasing general significance given the aging of the American population.

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We propose to study (a) the stereotypes that young adults hold regarding the emotional lives of the elderly, (b) the perception of facial expressions shown by the elderly and (c) reactions to these expressions in terms of facial and postural mimicry by the perceiver. Available evidence suggests that young adults do not accurately process the emotional expressions of the elderly. We argue that stereotypes and perceptual biases due to age related appearance changes in the face interact to degrade the signal clarity of expressions shown by the elderly and combine to hinder mimicry of their expressions. The proposed research will be the first to clarify our understanding of these processes.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Aging (NIA)
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Social Psychology, Personality and Interpersonal Processes Study Section (SPIP)
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Nielsen, Lisbeth
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Dartmouth College
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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Slepian, Michael L; Weisbuch, Max; Adams, Reginald B et al. (2011) Gender moderates the relationship between emotion and perceived gaze. Emotion 11:1439-44