Age-Related Differences in Sensitivity to Emotional Facial Stimuli but Age-Independent Association between Arousal Ratings and Visual Search Efficiency


  • Daniel Lundqvist Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden
  • Joakim Svärd Aging Research Center, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden
  • Håkan Fischer Aging Research Center, Karolinska Institutet, & Department of Psychology, Stockholm University, Sweden


visual attention, emotion, aging, visual search, facial stimuli


The latter part of the lifespan is commonly associated with a decline of cognitive functions, but also with changes in emotional responding. To explore the effect of age on processing of emotional stimuli, we used a two-task design. In a stimulus-rating task, we investigated the emotional responses to 15 different schematic facial emotional stimuli (one neutral, seven positive, seven negative) on Arousal, Valence and Potency measures in 20 younger (21-32 yrs, M=26, SD=3.7) and 20 older (65-81 yrs, M=72, SD=4.9) participants. In a visual attention task, we used the same 15 stimuli in a visual search paradigm to investigate differences between younger and older participants in how the emotional properties of these emotional stimuli influence visual attention.The results from the stimulus-rating task showed significantly reduced range in responses to emotional stimuli in the older compared to the younger group. This difference was found on both emotional Arousal and Potency measures, but not on emotional Valence measures; indicating an age-related flattening of affect on two of the three emotional key dimensions. The results from the visual search task showed – apart from the general extension of response latencies in older – no general emotion-related differences between how emotional stimuli influences attention in the younger and older groups.Analysis of the relationships between attention and emotion measures showed that higher ratings on Arousal and Potency were associated with both shorter reaction times and fewer errors in the attention task. This correlation was age-independent, indicating a similar influence from emotional Arousal on detection of angry faces in younger and older adults.