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?
Again, 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.