Age-related decrease in recognition of emotional facial and prosodic expressions

Lena Lambrecht, Benjamin Kreifelts, Dirk Wildgruber
Emotion 2012, 12 (3): 529-39
The recognition of nonverbal emotional signals and the integration of multimodal emotional information are essential for successful social communication among humans of any age. Whereas prior studies of age dependency in the recognition of emotion often focused on either the prosodic or the facial aspect of nonverbal signals, our purpose was to create a more naturalistic setting by presenting dynamic stimuli under three experimental conditions: auditory, visual, and audiovisual. Eighty-four healthy participants (women = 44, men = 40; age range 20-70 years) were tested for their abilities to recognize emotions either mono- or bimodally on the basis of emotional (happy, alluring, angry, disgusted) and neutral nonverbal stimuli from voice and face. Additionally, we assessed visual and auditory acuity, working memory, verbal intelligence, and emotional intelligence to explore potential explanatory effects of these population parameters on the relationship between age and emotion recognition. Applying unbiased hit rates as performance measure, we analyzed data with linear regression analyses, t tests, and with mediation analyses. We found a linear, age-related decrease in emotion recognition independent of stimulus modality and emotional category. In contrast, the improvement in recognition rates associated with audiovisual integration of bimodal stimuli seems to be maintained over the life span. The reduction in emotion recognition ability at an older age could not be sufficiently explained by age-related decreases in hearing, vision, working memory, and verbal intelligence. These findings suggest alterations in social perception at a level of complexity beyond basic perceptional and cognitive abilities.

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