It is usually easy to determine the mood of your partner. There is a look on their face that is an instant giveaway. But a new study suggests that we do not have to be in our partner's presence to be able to discern how they are feeling.
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany, suggest that all adults, regardless of age, have the ability to make accurate judgements of other people's emotions using the knowledge they have of that person, rather than "sensory cues."
"When judging others' emotions in daily life, people do not exclusively rely on emotional expressions. Instead, they use additional information, such as their knowledge about a given situation and a particular person," Dr. Antje Rauers, lead researcher of the study, told Medical News Today.
"We assumed that in daily life, older adults would still be fairly accurate at judging a familiar person's feelings if they used their acquired knowledge about that person, but less so if they used that person's emotional expressions. We wanted to challenge this notion."
For the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, the research team recruited 100 couples. Some of them were aged between 20 and 30, while other couples were aged between 69 and 80.
In order to replicate past research, which revealed that older adults are less likely to interpret emotions through facial expressions, the couples were shown different faces and asked to identify specific emotions.
Over the following 2 weeks, the participants were asked to record their own emotions, as well as the emotions of their partners, six times a day using a cell phone.
The researchers say that although the participants were able to determine their partner's mood accurately using facial expressions when they were nearby, the team was interested to see if they could do the same when their partners were absent.
All partners recorded their emotions at the same time every day, regardless of where they were. The researchers say this allowed them to accurately estimate how the other partner felt at that specific moment.
Understanding of loved ones 'does not decline with age'
The findings revealed that when it came to reading partner's facial expressions when they were present, younger couples proved significantly more accurate, compared with older couples. This confirmed previous findings that older adults are less able to read emotions through facial expressions.
However, when researchers analyzed data from when the couples were separated, both younger and older couples were equally good at determining how their partner felt at a particular moment.
Dr. Rauers explained the team's findings to Medical News Today:
"Younger adults were more accurate than older adults at gauging their partner's current feelings when the partner was currently present and could be observed.
However, there were no age differences when partners were temporarily apart during their daily routines, and both younger and older adults were more accurate than chance. This implies that people did not simply engage in random guessing. Instead, they knew something about their partner's emotional mood, and used this knowledge to judge their partner's current feelings."
Rauers said these findings suggest that as we age, some cognitive processes linked to understanding and empathizing with a partner remain stable:
"Our findings show that people use various skills to discern others' feelings, and that these skills differentially support younger and older adults in judging others' feelings."
"For developmental psychology, this implies a new and differentiated view on the aging of emotion understanding: Yes, aging may affect the ability to read emotions in others' faces. But despite this, older adults may remain rather accurate in judging another person's feelings if they rely on their personal knowledge about that person."
Dr. Rauers added that future studies will involve investigating the implications of the ability to understand others' emotions for social relationships, and how these implications may change across life.