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Younger people can't read emotions on wrinkled faces

Having wrinkles adds well, a new wrinkle for young people trying to gauge the emotions seen on older people's faces. A new study suggests that younger people may make more mistakes when judging the emotions of older folks.

To younger adults, age-related changes, such as wrinkles and folds, look like facial expressions, so they may interfere with the perception of emotion in an older face and perhaps convey the wrong message.

In the study, published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers asked 65 college students to view computer-generated black and white faces. They viewed faces of three men and three women who were young (ages 19 to 21) or old (ages 76 to 83) displaying one of four facial expressions: neutral, happy, sad, or angry.

Participants were asked to rate the emotional expression on the person's face on a scale from 1 for "not at all intense" to 7 for "very intense."

Young people were were most accurate in recognizing an angry expression and least accurate in judging sadness in old faces. They perceived happy faces in older people as showing less overall emotion than a younger person.

The study found that a facial expression, such as pure anger, on an older face is perceived differently -- and less clearly -- than the very same expression displayed on a younger person.

"In the case of the older expresser, the anger is seen as mixed with other emotions,"  says lead author Dr. Ursula Hess, a professor of psychology at Humboldt-University in Berlin, Germany.  "Clearly it makes a difference whether you think someone is just angry or someone is both angry and sad," she adds.

Even when it came to a neutral face, volunteers perceived that there was more emotion in a neutral older face than in a younger one.

Courtesy of Dr. Ursula Hess

Here's an example of the images researchers used in the study.

Researchers suggest that wrinkles do impact the communication of emotion.

"We may make mistakes when judging the emotions of the elderly," says Hess. "This may result in less harmonious interactions."

The age of the observers also likely made a difference in the results. Had the study participants been closer in age to the older faces, they would have had more experience at recognizing older faces to overcome the difficulties posed by a less clear emotional signal, Hess explains.

Although Botox may help smooth out the furrows and lines of an older face, it won't make it any easier for people to gauge your emotions. The cosmetic injections may limit facial expressions, making them harder to read.

So how can an older person make their emotions more visible -- and less obscure -- to other people?

Emotions are usually transmitted via a number of channels, including voice and posture, as well as the face, suggests Hess. And during everyday interactions, expressions are more dynamic than looking at a black-and-white photograph in a lab.

Since there are many different sources of emotion information, "an attentive interaction partner could learn how to properly decode the emotion," says Hess. That's probably why older people are better at decoding other older people's expressions.