Emotional Faces in Context: Age Differences in Recognition Accuracy and Scanning Patterns

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Although age-related declines in facial expression recognition are well documented, previous research has relied mostly on isolated faces devoid of context. The authors investigated the effects of context on age differences in recognition of facial emotions and in visual scanning patterns of emotional faces. While their eye movements were monitored, younger and older participants viewed facial expressions (i.e., anger, disgust) in contexts that were emotionally congruent, incongruent, or neutral to the facial expression to be identified. Both age groups had the highest recognition rates of facial expressions in the congruent context, followed by the neutral context, and recognition rates in the incongruent context were the lowest. These context effects were more pronounced for older adults. Compared to younger adults, older adults exhibited a greater benefit from congruent contextual information, regardless of facial expression. Context also influenced the pattern of visual scanning characteristics of emotional faces in a similar manner across age groups. In addition, older adults initially attended more to context overall. Our data highlight the importance of considering the role of context in understanding emotion recognition in adulthood.

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