Age-Related Changes in Emotional Sensitivity

By Yasaman Khorsandian

Most people have different skill levels at detecting subtle changes in social cues or facial emotion intensities, but could these abilities be related to our age? A new study conducted at McLean Hospital recently discovered that people are most sensitive to social cues during adolescence and become more optimistic as they grow older. This study was conducted using the online platform named, during which participants were shown various images of pairs of faces and asked to choose the one that was more angry, happy, or fearful. The web-based platform allowed the researchers to reach out to a very large and diverse sample set with participants from different age groups. This novel testing method also produced more accurate results regarding the participants’ ability to decode facial cues and helped the researchers achieve a deeper understanding of emotional processing in humans.

The main findings of the study show that sensitivity to anger cues are significantly higher during early to mid-adolescence, which also happens to be the age at which individuals are most exposed to various forms of social threat, such as bullying. This discovery could be very influential in improving anti-bullying programs for young children and helping them overcome such difficulties. Furthermore, the researchers found that although the ability to decode emotional cues decreases with age, the decline in the ability to detect happiness is virtually nonexistent. In other words, while other visual perceptual abilities decline with age, our perception of happiness does not. The lack of sensitivity to negative social cues combined with the same perception of happiness at an older age suggests that we become more positive as we grow older. The findings of this study could help doctors and mental health professionals personalize treatments and help individuals best overcome emotional obstacles in life based on their age.


McLean Hospital. (2019, March 1). How sensitivity to emotions changes across the lifespan: Researchers gain a deeper understanding into differences in emotion processing. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 9, 2019 from