February 2, 2011 / 3:41 AM / 8 years ago

Older not always wiser in case of social gaffes: study

WELLINGTON (Reuters Life!) - Older people have more trouble detecting social gaffes committed by others, the result of a decline in how they perceive emotions, according to a New Zealand study.

Using video clips from the British sitcom “The Office,” researchers at the University of Otago compared the ability of older and younger adults to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate behavior.

The authors hope the study may help to understand the aging process and how to deal with it.

“If you look at recognition of expressions of faces, or of bodies, or of voices, we get worse as we get older,” said Ted Ruffman, an associate professor at the university’s Department of Psychology who took part in the study.

“At least by 60 years of age, but even in middle age, there’s some evidence that we get worse. So we started to wonder about what’s the cause of this and how broad are the declines, would we find them in all other aspects of social understanding,” he told Reuters.

In the study, published in the U.S. journal “Psychology and Aging,” 121 participants — half over 60 years of age and the rest aged 18 to 35 - were shown video clips and asked to rate whether the behavior of character David Brent, played by comedian Ricky Gervais, was socially appropriate.

Participants also took tests to gauge how well they recognized emotions expressed facially, vocally and through body language, along with tests of their cognitive ability.

Those over 60 were not as good as young adults at judging when Brent committed a gaffe, which took place in roughly half the video clips, Ruffman said.

“The difference isn’t huge but it’s there, and related to worsening emotional recognition,” he added.

Previous Otago research has shown that people over 60 are worse at recognizing anger, sadness and often fear on the faces of others. They also are not as good at detecting dangerous faces as younger people are.

Ruffman said the study was the first to examine age differences in detecting social gaffes from appropriate behavior while measuring emotional recognition skills.

“The implication is that difficulties in spotting faux pas are related to difficulties in the social world,” he said.

Reporting by Elaine Lies; editing by Ron Popeski

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