We tend to become more emotionally-resilient as we age, a new study suggests.

Faces balloons.

Image credits Gino Crescoli.

Adults tend to have an overall more positive attitude than adolescents, and it may be because they’re less able to pick up on negative emotions, a new paper reports.

Why the long face?

“We found that sensitivity to anger cues improves dramatically during early to mid-adolescence,” says first author Lauren Rutter from the McLean Hospital, Massachusetts. “This is the exact age when young people are most attuned to forms of social threat, such as bullying. The normal development of anger sensitivity can contribute to some of the challenges that arise during this phase of development.”

The team developed a digital test (using the web platform TestMyBrain.org) to gauge the levels of emotion sensitivity across age and socioeconomic groups. Nearly 10,000 participants aged 10 to 85 completed their survey. The test was designed to measure how easily each person picked up on subtle differences in facial cues for fear, anger, and happiness — and, given the wide and diverse sample group, how this sensitivity fluctuates over time.

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Each participant was shown images of different faces, presented in pairs, and was asked to compare and contrast the levels of anger, happiness, and fear they conveyed — through questions such as “Which face is more angry?”, etc. The online platform helped the researchers tap into a “much larger and more diverse sample set” than previous studies, Rutter says, and the novel testing method helped improve the accuracy of the results for decoding facial cues.

All in all, the study revealed that sensitivity to facial cues for anger and fear decreases as people age — but the sensitivity to happiness holds firm. The team says that these findings mirror previous studies and anecdotal evidence that point to declines in the ability of people to decode emotional cues, but that the results pertaining to happiness are novel.

 “These findings fit well with other research showing that older adults tend to have more positive emotions and a positive outlook,” Rutter adds.

“It’s well established that there is an age-related decline in the ability to decode emotion cues, in general, but here we see very little decline in the ability to detect differences in happiness,” co-author Laura Germine adds. “This is even though the study was designed to be sensitive to differences in happiness sensitivity with age, based on principles from psychometrics and signal detection theory.

The team plans to expand on their findings by examining how emotional sensitivity fluctuates in relation to differences in mental health, such as anxiety disorders. They also want to investigate how sensitivity to anger and happiness cues might be related to the development of poorer mental health after trauma.

The paper “Emotion sensitivity across the lifespan: Mapping clinical risk periods to sensitivity to facial emotion intensity” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.