Cognitive Daily

Take a look at these two pictures. Who is more dangerous?


It’s not hard to decide, although I wouldn’t hurt a fly, and Nora, even at age three, could be brutal with her sarcasm. Now, what’s the most dangerous situation?


i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifAgain, an easy decision. While Carhenge is certainly an awe-inspiring monument (and perhaps Jim could scratch himself on one of those cars), Nora’s descent of this rock spire gives me shivers.

You might think that there aren’t many differences in how adults judge threats in examples such as this, but there is some reason to believe that older adults may have a different response to danger than young adults. The volume of the amygdala, the so-called center of fear in the brain, decreases with age. The frontal cortex, believed to be the area responsible for understanding the thoughts and intentions of others, also diminishes in size more rapidly with age compared to other parts of the brain.

Ted Ruffman, Susan Sullivan, and Nigel Edge showed pictures like the ones above to both college students (younger adults) and older adults averaging age 69. Each picture was rated on a scale of -3 (not dangerous) to +3 (dangerous). Some of the pictures were faces, and some depicted situations like extreme sports, wild animals, or weather events, with no visible human faces. All these pictures had previously been categorized by both younger and older adults into low danger, medium danger, and high danger categories. Here are their results:


For the situation pictures, the difference between young and old adults was not significant, but for faces, older adults consistently rated the threat from the high danger pictures significantly lower than younger adults. The same pattern occurred whether the pictures had been previously categorized by younger or older adults.

This difference can’t be explained by the strategy used to rate the pictures: both young and old adults tended to rate pictures of women and smiling faces as less dangerous.

The researchers make a compelling, though not conclusive case that what may be going on here is that older adults are simply worse at determining threats from faces than younger adults. After all, the results held true whether the categories had been determined by old or young people. Yet it’s still possible that young adults are the ones who are consistently wrong.

If the differences in young adults and older adults really are due to some sort of decline in ability, then Ruffman’s team suggests that future research might focus on imaging the brain while participants rate this set of images: if differences in ratings correspond to differing brain activity, that would also suggest that older adults’ system for assessing threats has been compromised.

Ruffman, T., Sullivan, S., & Edge, N. (2006). Differences in the way older and younger adults rate threat in faces but not situations. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 61B(4), 187-194.


  1. #1 richard
    May 8, 2007

    huh? How could one so quickly conclude that the ability to be properly and correctly fearful declines with age?

    As I read this, I assumed that our tendency to fear the unknown decreased with age and that what this study demonstrated was that, basically, we mellow out with age and are less fearful of strangers.

    Would it be possible to correlate the results from this study with crime statistics of young and old people being assaulted by strangers after having been surreptitiously befriended by them?

    your conclusions are terribly presumptuous, me thinks.


  2. #2 RBH
    May 8, 2007

    What Richard said. Absent any independent measure of the actual objective threat signaled by the various faces, there’s no way in these data to distinguish between the hypothesis of decrease in appropriate fearfulness and the hypothesis of increased realistic assessment of danger with age.

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    May 8, 2007

    The study authors, and I, make no such conclusion. They speculate that this might be going on, but they are careful to point out that their evidence alone can’t confirm it, though it does appear to be the simplest explanation that matches the data.

    Instead they offer suggestions for additional research that could confirm their speculation. If the prediction holds true, it’s additional evidence supporting the explanation.

    Remember too that “fear” is not what’s actually being measured — it’s perception of danger, which is arguably more quantifiable.

  4. #4 richard
    May 8, 2007

    Speculate? That’s exactly my point. One can speculate anything, all the time; provide a study’s inconclusive results and the speculation becomes suddenly more valid?

    I would further contend that perception of danger is not quantifiable since it’s relative. Since when is relativity quantifiable when there’s no absolute measure? (If it’s not relative, then I assume the study somehow guaranteed that everybody’s state of mind was entirely identical? every single participant was not on an anti-depressant, or they were all taking exactly the same amount, and there wasn’t a single schizophrenic in the bunch?)

    I speculate the opposite of you, yet my speculation is as equally supported by your data if not more (have you mellowed with age, in general, yourself? What is the value, or not, of empirical data alongside “conclusive” data?).

    Why is your conclusion more likely to be the “truth” than mine?

  5. #5 Betsy
    May 8, 2007

    Does anybody realize that older people have more experience,just by virtue of interactions with people for a longer time. How about agreeing that elders may have that elusive “wisdom” that all cultures but our western ones think they have? Of course I may be biased, I AM 65….

  6. #6 Dave Munger
    May 8, 2007


    The converging evidence suggests that what’s going on is a decline in ability: The shrinking of the amygdala and the frontal cortex, the fact that the ability to distinguish dangerous faces diminishes but not the ability to distinguish dangerous situations.

    Plus, there’s considerable evidence that older adults are more vulnerable to scams than younger adults — some of this is due to memory deficits, but it’s also possible that this inability to appropriately characterize dangerous faces might also play into it.

    Betsy, I’d like to believe that the “wisdom” of age might play into this equation, but it’s also possible that the apparently peaceful demeanor of older adults is due to the inability to recognize danger. The evidence does suggest that the latter is the case. This is not to say that this apparent wisdom isn’t an appealing trait, just that the explanation for it might be due to a diminishing of some neural capacity.

  7. #7 Eric
    May 8, 2007


    Are you aware of how much science is built around speculation? It’s called a hypothesis. From there you do studies to confirm, deny, or refine the hypothesis. A hypothesis is not pulled out of thin air. It’s built upon converging evidence, models, etc.

    It doesn’t sound like you read the cited article; I haven’t either. But you rant as though the authors simply inserted a naked speculation into the middle of the article. I suspect they made it clear they were speculating, described their speculation and their associated evidence (Dave implies as much), and perhaps even offered reasons why their speculation might not turn out to be the case.

    Are your speculations a priori equally good? Doubtful. Let’s see what evidence you bring to bear and then we can make that determination. But generally speaking, are your speculations with respect to cosmology, neuroscience, and history just as good as those of people who get their articles published in refereed academic journals in the respective fields?

    Perhaps the authors can next see if there are any correlations b/w age and perceived threat of a speculation.


  8. #8 Mara M.
    May 8, 2007

    An interesting counterpoint to Ruffman et al.’s finding of age differences in ratings is the finding that older adults show as much of a threat detection advantage when asked to detect discrepant faces in an array of neutral faces:

  9. #9 Barry Kelly
    May 8, 2007

    I have to agree with Betsy, Richard, RBH: it seems to me that since most (i.e. almost all) people are harmless, the graph presented here shows that classification of faces as dangerous or not is becoming more accurate with age, not less.

    The only way I can see the graph suggesting older people having less ability to distinguish dangerous faces would be if a significant number of people were actually dangerous – for example, if it was likely that you’d meet even a single one in an average year.

  10. #10 Tony Jeremiah
    May 9, 2007

    Interesting study.

    Possibly, these results could also be explained in the context of socioemotional selectivity theory and the positivity effect. Both constructs suggest that older adults increasingly focus their attention on positive (emotional) information with age, with consequences occurring at the neural attentional level such as older adults showing greater brain activity when processing positive information relative to negative information, whereas younger adults tend to show greater brain activity when processing negative information relative to positive information (Carstensen & Mikels, 2005). These particular brain imaging data would seem to account for the gradual increase in the difference for processing low danger (positive images) and high danger (negative images) for young and old adults in the study cited.

    Evidently, situational fear is not the same as socioemotional fear since socioemotional selectivity theory and the positivity effect do not account for the no difference findings when processing situational information.


    Carstensen, L.L., & Mikels, J.A. (2005). At the intersection of emotion and cognition: Aging and the positivity effect. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 117-121.

  11. #11 codesuidae
    May 9, 2007

    A recent Discover Magazine issue dedicated to articles about the brain contained an article that examined the changes that occur in the brain as people age. Young adults have a tendency to stay up and sleep late while older adults tend to go to sleep and wake earlier. Evidently this tendency is a result of some feature of brain development (I forget the specifics, obtain and read the magazine for details).

    In the article it is speculated that there is a survival advantage in this offset in that young adults can stay up late to defend the clan and older adults can get up early to take over that job in the morning. One could speculate that young adults rate faces as more dangerous because they are more likely to encounter threats during the night shift, thus a a more defensive attitude is advantageous. Conversely, friendly parties might be more likely to show up in the morning (as opposed to under cover of darkness) and so adults, active in the morning, giving strangers the benefit of the doubt might confer a slight advantage. Thus, at different ages we develop different attitudes toward strangers.

    Pure speculation of course, but interesting nonetheless.

  12. #12 reg
    May 9, 2007

    As a middle aged person, my instinctive reponse to this study is

    Did anyone think maybe we just get tired of being afraid?

    In my 50 + years no one has ever harmed me. Scary looking people, friendly looking people, obvious con artists all have overlooked me as a target. The last scary person who approached me direstly asked for directions to the post office. I gave them, he thanked me, we moved on.

    What is a scary looking person anyway? If we could identify serial killers by their looks they would never go free.

    Fear is counterproductive; it keeps people from acting to improve situations. I don’t want to throw caution to the wind, but frankly, I simply won’t cower in fear of many things I am supposed to be afraid of.

    That scary looking gang of teenagers on the corner? I should cross the street to avoid them? Once maybe, not anymore. I say “excuse me” and walk right through. It’s MY street.

    I truly hate the culture of fear we are supposed to be living in. Giving in to pointless fears transfers power to all the wrong people.

  13. #13 Dave Munger
    May 9, 2007

    Did anyone think maybe we just get tired of being afraid?

    Sure, but why are older adults equally afraid of situations then? I still think it’s interesting that the effect only seems to apply to faces.

  14. #14 Gav
    May 9, 2007

    For what it’s worth this sample of one is noticeably more fearful of perceived physical dangers, particularly of falling, than I was when I was a lot younger, and less fearful of social situations where there is no perceived physical threat. I’d put this down to wisdom too, the alternatives (including dementia) being less pleasant to think about.

    The question of increased vulnerability with age to scams is rather different as a successful scam, I’d have thought, has to look non-threatening to begin with. Seems reasonable that people should become more gullible if and when they go dotty, and so more vulnerable to scams, although a quick search around hasn’t come up with hard information to support an age link eg it’s suggested that around 2.0 percent of elderly may be financially abused (Ogg and Bennett, 1992) but there doesn’t seem to have been a comparable frequency study done for younger adults. If anyone knows of any I’d be grateful for a reference.

  15. #15 Michael Chermside
    May 9, 2007

    Two flaws bother me:

    (1) As mentioned by others, perhaps the older folks tested are simply wiser and realize (to some small extent) that faces don’t actually correlate with danger.

    (2) The change could also be cultural. Testing age while controlling for what era you grew up in could prove difficult — the best proxy is probably to test across very different cultures (hard to do in this global world).

  16. #16 roseindigo
    May 10, 2007

    I do believe wisdom plays into the difference. So does this comment: “Did anyone think maybe we just get tired of being afraid?” And so does the simple fact that as we experience life and get older, we either learn to handle situations or not. I’m 65, and by now I’m pretty confident that I can handle almost any situation that comes up, even dangerous ones, and I have handled them—so my fears have lessened. I’ve also learned that most things I was once afraid of were actually quite survivable. Lastly, as we age some of us also have less fear of death, and we have a bit of a “everyone dies, what difference does it make how you die” attitude. At least I’ve noticed that in myself. Ergo, less fear of whatever comes along. It’s actually a very freeing adventurous feeling, one I did not have when younger. I feel I can finally meet life full-face, without all those nagging little fears I once had.

  17. #17 roseindigo
    May 10, 2007

    By the way, the face photos shown above are NOT a very good test. One is a child with obvious lack of physical body strength; the other is a male who looks not only quite healthy and strong, but has a moustache. An older female looking at those two pictures would clearly indicate that the male seems more dangerous to her, from a point of logic and playing the odds. You will find that males with moustaches and beards are usually considered to be “more dangerous” than those without, and a child of the age shown is not considered dangerous at all. It seems to me that the difference in the two photos is SO OBVIOUS that it doesn’t even count as a legitimate test.

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