More than Face Value: Context and Age Differences in Negative Emotion Discrimination

Abstract

Age-related deficits are often observed in emotion categorization tasks that include negative emotional expressions like anger, fear, and sadness. Stimulus characteristics such as facial cue salience and gaze direction can facilitate or hinder facial emotion perception. Using two emotion discrimination tasks, the current study investigated how older and younger adults categorize emotion in faces with varying facial cue similarity and with direct or averted gaze (Task 1) and in faces that appear on actors in congruent or incongruent contexts (Task 2). When context was included, the target’s gaze direction was averted toward emotionally laden objects in the background context on half of the trials. In both tasks, younger adults generally outperformed older adults. Discrimination performance was best when cue similarity was minimal. Negative facial emotion cues were interpreted through the lens of the context in which they appear, as facial emotion judgments in both age groups were impacted by background contextual emotion cues, especially when highly confusable negative emotions were evaluated. Although the contextual emotion cues were deemed irrelevant within task instructions, these cues were nevertheless integrated into one's percept. When emotion discrimination proved difficult, older adults were more inclined than younger adults to use the additional context to support their decision, suggesting that context plays a pivotal role in older adults’ everyday evaluation of emotion in social partners.

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Availability of Data and Material

Data and material can be found on Open Science Framework (OSF): https://osf.io/th8zx/?view_only=e667f09325874047b1be401889b435d0.

Code Availability

Availability of stimuli and E-prime 2.0 experiment code available by request to corresponding author.

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Funding

This work was supported by the Graduate School at Western Kentucky University (221560).

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Correspondence to Alyssa R. Minton.

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This protocol was approved for data to be collected from September 17, 2018 to September 1, 2019 by Western Kentucky University Institutional Review Board (IRB #19-080).

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Minton, A.R., Mienaltowski, A. More than Face Value: Context and Age Differences in Negative Emotion Discrimination. J Nonverbal Behav (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-021-00369-z

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Keywords

  • Age differences
  • Emotional context
  • Emotion discrimination
  • Gaze direction