Older is not always wiser when it comes to social gaffes

February 2, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Older people have more difficulty detecting the social gaffes of others and this is due to an age-related decline in their emotion perception skills, new University of Otago research suggests.

In an experiment newly published in the US journal Psychology and Aging, Department of Psychology researchers including Jamin Halberstadt, Ted Ruffman and Janice Murray compared the ability of older and younger adults to distinguish socially appropriate from inappropriate behaviour depicted in the UK sitcom The Office.

The study’s 121 participants, of whom 60 were aged 18-35 and the remainder aged over 60, were asked to rate how socially appropriate the character David Brent’s behaviour was in 16 video clips from the sitcom. Half of the clips depicted Brent acting appropriately and half showed him making faux pas.

Participants also undertook a battery of tests to gauge their emotion recognition skills and general cognitive ability. The emotion tests measured how well participants could perceive emotions expressed facially, vocally and through body postures.

Associate Professor Halberstadt says those aged over 60 were found to be not as good as young adults at differentiating when Brent was acting appropriately or committing a gaffe. Older adults also showed poorer performance on the battery of emotion recognition tests.

“What’s more, further analysis showed that older adults’ poorer performance on the faux pas task could be fully explained by their decline in emotion recognition abilities,” he says.

The Otago study is the first ever to examine differences in the ability to distinguish gaffes from appropriate social behaviour while also measuring emotion recognition skills.

Previous Otago research has also shown that over 60-year-olds are worse at recognising anger, sadness and often fear, on the faces of others and are also not as good at detecting dangerous faces as younger people are.

“An important question raised by our latest research is how emotion recognition difficulties and difficulties detecting faux pas might affect social functioning in the real world.”

Being unable to make distinctions between socially appropriate and inappropriate behaviour could, for example, harm social relationships and contribute to social isolation, he says.

“Understanding age-related changes in emotion recognition and social skills can provide insight into the aging process and ways to improve elderly people’s quality of life.”

More information: Psychology and Aging, Emotion Perception Explains Age-Related Differences in the Perception of Social Gaffes, Jamin Halberstadt, Ted Ruffman, Janice Murray, Mele Taumoepeau, and Melissa Ryan, DOI:10.1037/a0021366

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Half of people believe fake facts

December 7, 2016

Many people are prone to 'remembering' events that never happened, according to new research by the University of Warwick.

MRI scans detect 'brain rust' in schizophrenia

December 7, 2016

A damaging chemical imbalance in the brain may contribute to schizophrenia, according to research presented at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology Annual Meeting in Hollywood, Florida.

Helping children achieve more in school

December 7, 2016

Not all children do well in school, despite being intellectually capable. Whilst parental relationships, motivation and self-concept all have a role to play, a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology ...

Want to give a good gift? Think past the 'big reveal'

December 6, 2016

Gift givers often make critical errors in gift selection during the holiday season, according to a new research article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ormondotvos
not rated yet Feb 03, 2011
Or maybe us old farts are getting ready to leave and don't care what you think.

Emotional responses are for babies, and lovers. Death's a calming prospect.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.