Say what? Study finds it’s ‘natural’ for older generations to misunderstand today’s youth

COLCHESTER, United Kingdom — Older adults are often called out for failing to understand what younger generations are saying, but interesting new research suggests there may be more at play here than just being out of touch with the latest lingo. Researchers at the University of Essex have found that, in a way, it’s natural for older and younger generations to have a harder time communicating.

Their latest research indicates that the brain’s ability to correctly recognize both positive and negative emotional cues in voices declines as we grow older. Across three experiments, study authors kept coming to the same conclusion. Older adults just aren’t as adept at picking up on emotions as younger adults. Even electrically stimulating key brain areas didn’t help older adults improve their emotional detection skills.

More specifically, adults over the age of 65 were less accurate than participants in their 20s. Researchers speculate that these findings are linked to changes in the brain as we age. Older participants struggled to pick up on “the emotion of happiness” in others’ speech, while younger adults were 17 percent better at picking it up in voices. Overall, older adults only successfully picked up on happiness 35 percent of the time, while younger participants identified it across 52 percent of cases.

Older generations also have trouble detecting negativity

Despite these results, study authors note that positive emotions weren’t the only feelings older people struggled to understand and recognize during the research. Older participants were 13 percent worse at detecting the emotion of disgust in voices and picked up on anger less than five percent of the time.

“How we say something and our tone of voice is as important during social interactions as to what we are actually saying. Have you ever had an awkward moment where something was said with a certain intent but was received differently? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve joked to my grandmother, only to find out she thought I was being serious, even though I was aiming for a light-hearted tone,” says Constantina Maltezou-Papastylianou, a doctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology, in a media release.

“Research suggests that one of the explanations for this mismatch of our emotional intention when we say something and how it is actually received by the listener may be due to hormonal and anatomical changes that happen in a brain as we age naturally.”

How much of a difference is there between generations?

The research team analyzed two age-split volunteer groups to reach these findings. One group’s average age was 21 years-old, while the other group’s average age was 67. All participants enjoyed generally strong hearing and spoke English as their native language.

Over the span of three separate experiments, 117 people listened to 196 sentences. Simultaneously, researchers monitored participant brain activity. After hearing the sentences, each person had to identify the emotion within the speaker’s tone of voice.

All in all, the younger group came away with an average 76 percent success rate. The older participants attained a 69 percent success rate. Study authors theorize the difference in performance across age groups is largely due to natural changes in the brain associated with healthy aging. They add that more research is necessary, which explores why emotional detection skills tend to deteriorate as we age.

“This research is another step forward in understanding how we interpret vocal emotion expressions as we age. Emotional recognition from voice can impact many aspects of life and it is important to keep this in mind when interacting with others, particularly with older adults,” Maltezou-Papastylianou concludes. “We hope to build on this research going forward and expand the work to look at different demographics, characteristics and personalities.”

The study is published in PLoS ONE.

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