People are at their most sensitive to angry faces and social threats when they are teenagers, research finds.
Adolescents can spot the slightest sign of negative emotion in another person’s face.
This partly helps to explain why the social world of adolescents feels so fraught with danger to them.
However, with age, people in general become less sensitive to anger and fear, while retaining their sensitivity to happiness.
Dr Laura Germine, study co-author, said:
“From studies and anecdotal evidence, we know that the everyday experiences of an adolescent is different from a middle aged or older person, but we wanted to understand how these experiences might be linked with differences in basic emotion understanding.”
For the study, 9,546 people took a test of emotional sensitivity.
The test measured how sensitive people are to facial cues of happiness, anger and fear.
Dr Lauren A. Rutter, the study’s first author, explained the results:
“We found that sensitivity to anger cues improves dramatically during early to mid-adolescence.
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 study also found that women of all ages are more sensitive to anger and fear than men.
However, both young and old, men and women, are equally good at detecting happiness, the study found.
Dr Germine explained:
“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.
What’s remarkable is that we see declines in many visual perceptual abilities as we get older, but here we did not see such declines in the perception of happiness.
These findings fit well with other research showing that older adults tend to have more positive emotions and a positive outlook.”
The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Rutter et al., 2019).