New research from the University of Kent has found that teens and older adults pay less attention to social cues in real-world interactions than young adults.
The results published by Human behavior of nature show that social attention undergoes age-related changes, which has potential implications for how we can successfully interpret social interactions in daily life and across the lifespan.
Interpreting the facial expression, tone of voice, and gestures of others is a vital part of social interaction that allows us to make quick inferences about other people’s mental states, such as their intentions, emotions, desires and beliefs. Successful social interaction elicits perspective and empathy as well as other essential social skills and plays an important role in improving our well-being.
The research conducted by doctoral student Martina De Lillo, alongside Professor Heather Ferguson and other colleagues at the University of Kent’s School of Psychology, is the first of its kind to examine how social attention is distributed during adolescence and whether it is different from adulthood. In addition, no previous research has examined differences in the development of social attention over the lifespan as people actively participate in interactive real-world situations.
The researchers recorded participants in two real-world social interaction situations (a face-to-face conversation and navigating an environment) using mobile eye-tracking glasses to monitor their attention on social information and not social. Adolescents (10 to 19 years old), youth (20 to 40 years old) and older adults (60 to 80 years old) were assessed in both scenarios.
In the first experiment, teens and older adults spent less time staring at the experimenter’s face during conversation, and more time staring into the background, compared to younger adults. In the second experiment, teens and older adults spent less time people-watching while browsing in a busy college environment, compared to younger adults. This is likely due to the fact that teens and older adults found the social situation more difficult to maintain than younger adults, and they dealt with this difficulty by avoiding complex social information from the face.
Martina De Lillo said: “The use of mobile eye tracking technology has given us a unique understanding of social interaction and the everyday use of social cognition in real world contexts. This can play a vital role in better understanding how social interaction develops throughout life.
Professor Ferguson said: ‘Focusing less on people and their faces means teens and older adults are missing out on important cues, which could lead to greater impairments in social interaction or fewer opportunities to engage in social interaction with others.
“During adolescence, children aged 10 to 19 continue to learn and develop relationships with their peers, so that they experience a rapid change in their social experiences and preferences. For older people, a substantial decline in social participation can lead to isolation, loneliness and poor health. Both groups can therefore be significantly affected by a lack of social engagement ”.
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Material provided by University of Kent. Original written by Olivia Miller. Note: Content can be changed for style and length.