Could your facial wrinkles make it more difficult for people to read your emotions? A recent study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has concluded that this is the case – at least for younger observers. Age-related changes such as wrinkles and folds can interfere with the perception of emotions among the young, while older people are better able to decipher the emotions behind wrinkles.

How did the study work?

The study involved 65 young college students. They were asked to view computer-generated faces of three men and three women. Some of the faces were young (19–21), while others were old (76–83). The faces were programmed to display neutral, happy, sad, and angry expressions. The participants were then asked to rate the expressions on the faces on a scale from 1 to 7.

What did the study find?

The participants were most accurate in recognizing an angry expression. However, they were least accurate in judging sadness in the older faces. Happy faces in older people were perceived as showing less overall emotion than the younger faces.

Why do wrinkles obscure the emotions of older people?

The wrinkles on older faces can create confusing signals, so that facial expressions are perceived differently and less clearly. According to lead author Dr. Ursula Hess, “the anger [in older faces] is seen as mixed with other emotions. Clearly it makes a difference whether you think someone is just angry or someone is both angry and sad.”

What about older people?

The results would likely have been quite different if the study participants had been closer in age to the older faces. As we get older, we get more experienced in recognizing emotions in older faces. We are also able to read other signals, such as posture and movement, to fill in the blanks.
The results of this study reinforce what many facial rejuvenation patients often experience after their treatments. After a facelift, eyelid surgery, laser skin tightening, or dermal filler injection, people often find that their faces are clearer and more expressive.