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Older Adults Better at "Knowing" Their Partner's Emotions

Update Date: Sep 10, 2013 03:22 PM EDT

Older adults are worse than younger adults at reading emotion in their spouse's face, but are just as good at assessing their partner's moods when their spouse isn't present.

Researchers said the latest findings suggest that older adults retain the ability to make accurate judgments about others emotions using acquired knowledge but not sensory cues.

"When judging others' emotions in real life, people do not exclusively rely on emotional expressions," lead researcher Antje Rauers of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany, said in a statement. "Instead, they use additional information, such as accumulated knowledge about a given situation and a particular person."

The latest study involved 100 couples.  Some of the participants were between the ages of 20 and 30 and others were between the ages of 69 and 80.

The participants looked at various faces and were asked to identify particular emotions.

Afterwards, participants were asked to record their own emotions and the emotions of their partners six times a day for two weeks using a cell phone.

Even though partners were sometimes in different places, they recorded their emotions at the exact same times throughout the day.  Researchers explained that this way, it was easy to find out if one partner was accurately estimating how the partner felt at that particular moment.

The findings revealed that older adults were worse than younger adults at reading expressions in their partners face when both partners were present. However, older adults and younger adults were equally good at estimating how their partner was feeling at a given moment.

Researchers said the results suggest that some cognitive processes associated with understanding and empathizing with one's partner remain stable as we age.

"Reading emotional expressions may become more difficult with age, but using one's knowledge about a familiar person remains a reliable strategy throughout adulthood," Rauers said.

"This is really good news, given that the overwhelming majority of research findings testifies an age-related decline in many competencies," Rauers concluded. "Our data suggest that knowing your loved ones well is an important resource that stays available throughout life."

The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science

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