The ability to accurately read other people’s facial expressions is fundamental for understanding what they are feeling and experiencing. Without this capability we would not be able to detect if others are happy, frustrated, surprised, disgusted, or any other emotion people express countless times every day. In fact, this skill is so fundamental to human functioning that by the time infants reach two months, they are able to recognize four core emotions: anger, fear, joy, and surprise. Recent research shows, however, that youth is not necessarily a benefit when it comes to recognizing emotions.
In a study released in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers asked a group of college students to view the faces of young people (ages 19 to 21) and old people (ages 76 to 83) who were displaying one of four facial expressions: neutral, happy, sad, or angry. The participants were less accurate in recognizing the expressions of the old faces than they were with the young faces. The researchers believe that wrinkled faces affect the communication of emotions, making it less clear to others what emotion is being expressed. The age of the participants also may have impacted the results. If the participants had been older adults who had more experience at observing and interacting with older people, they may have been better able to recognize emotional signals that were less clear to the younger participants.
Fortunately for all of us, including young adults, outside of the lab we can rely on other cues to determine emotions, such as body posture, language, and social context. While humans have an innate ability to perceive emotions in others, there are many things that can influence our skill at this. Simply paying closer attention to others, for instance, can greatly enhance the capacity to infer people’s feelings from their facial expressions and body language. If you want to improve at this skill, spend time in public places and pay close attention to people’s expressions. With practice, you will enhance your skill at understanding people’s emotions, and the ability to recognize others’ emotions is an important component related to emotional intelligence.