With Age Comes a Better Understanding of Social Signals

Neuroscientists have discovered an unexpected benefit of getting older – a more nuanced understanding of social signals, such as the age of others.

In a new study published today in the journal Current Biology, University of Glasgow researchers show that older people have richer mental representations of the ageing process.

A team from the university’s Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology used computer-generated representations of faces to gain an insight into the mental representations of ageing in the minds of volunteers aged 18-25 and 56-75.

The two-part study first showed volunteers 4,000 computer-generated images of faces. The images used a base face, created by averaging 84 male and female faces, overlaid with varying layers of random patterns known as Gabor noise, which darkened and brightened certain areas of the face.

The volunteers were asked to pick, for example, the ‘old’ face from three simultaneously presented faces, with perceived age affected by factors such as darkened areas between the nose and mouth which could appear as wrinkles to the observer. Over the trials, the researchers were able to average the noise templates to visualise the information each participant uses to estimate old age. Other trials repeated the experiment with ‘young’ and ‘middle-age’ choices.

The second part of the study presented faces ‘aged’ using the templates to a separate group of volunteers and asked them to judge their perceived ages between 18 and 80. The results showed that younger people mentally split the faces between themselves (younger) and others (older), while the older volunteers more faithfully represented the features of young, middle and old age.

This image shows the computer generated faces mentioned in the press release.
The researchers used computer generated representations of faces to gain insight into the mental representation of aging. Credit University of Glasgow.

Dr Nicola van Rijsbergen, first author on the study, said: “Our research allows us to demonstrate the mental representations in the mind that predict age judgments. For example, both age groups associated old age with wrinkles from the corners of the nose to the mouth, but only older participants represented the left and right jowls in old age.

“It’s difficult to say for sure exactly why this is happening, but one theory we have is that older people spend more time thinking about age than younger people do, which leads to a more nuanced mental representation of the ageing process.

“As a scientist, it’s very exciting to be able to visualize what’s going on in people’s heads with techniques such as these. This process gives us the tools to get a much clearer perspective on mental representations of faces and there is much more we can learn from similar studies in the future.
“Perhaps businesses who require employees to carefully evaluate other people might consider the benefits of employing older people. It seems that, contrary to commonly-held prejudices, older people more accurately depict socially relevant information than their younger counterparts.”

About this aging and psychology research

The research was supported by a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The paper, ‘With age comes representational wisdom in social signals’, is published in Current Biology.

Contact: Ross Barker – University of Glasgow
Source: University of Glasgow press release
Image Source: The image is adapted from the University of Glasgow press release
Original Research: Full open access research for “With Age Comes Representational Wisdom in Social Signals” by Nicola van Rijsbergen, Katarzyna Jaworska, Guillaume A. Rousselet, and Philippe G. Schyns in Current Biology. Published online November 13 2014 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.075

Open Access Neuroscience Abstract

With Age Comes Representational Wisdom in Social Signals

In an increasingly aging society, age has become a foundational dimension of social grouping broadly targeted by advertising and governmental policies. However, perception of old age induces mainly strong negative social biases [ 1–3 ]. To characterize their cognitive and perceptual foundations, we modeled the mental representations of faces associated with three age groups (young age, middle age, and old age), in younger and older participants. We then validated the accuracy of each mental representation of age with independent validators. Using statistical image processing, we identified the features of mental representations that predict perceived age. Here, we show that whereas younger people mentally dichotomize aging into two groups, themselves (younger) and others (older), older participants faithfully represent the features of young age, middle age, and old age, with richer representations of all considered ages. Our results demonstrate that, contrary to popular public belief, older minds depict socially relevant information more accurately than their younger counterparts.

“With Age Comes Representational Wisdom in Social Signals” by Nicola van Rijsbergen, Katarzyna Jaworska, Guillaume A. Rousselet, and Philippe G. Schyns in Current Biology. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.075.

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