Threat Detection and Aging (Mather & Knight, 2006).
Previous studies have found that younger adults detect threatening stimuli more quickly than other types of stimuli. This study examined whether older adults also show this adaptive threat-detection advantage.
On each trial in the experiment, participants saw an array consisting of nine schematic faces. Eight of the faces were neutral; the ninth was neutral, angry, happy, or sad. Participants indicated whether there was a discrepant face in each array.
Both older and younger adults were significantly faster to correctly detect a discrepant face when it signaled threat than when it signaled happiness or sadness. There was no age difference in this threat-detection advantage, indicating that this automatic process is maintained among older adults.
The current experiment provides information about an important piece of the puzzle in understanding the similarities and differences in younger and older adults' affective information processing, suggesting that processes enabling a quick response to dangerous stimuli do not decline with age. In this study, we found that, like younger adults, older adults detect schematic threatening faces more quickly than other types of emotional stimuli. Early detection of threatening stimuli provides a survival advantage by allowing for a rapid response (Ohman & Mineka, 2001) and appears to be an automatic process (Ohman et al., 2001).
In contrast, when presented with multiple stimuli, older adults orient away from negative (both threatening and non threatening) stimuli in their attention (Mather & Carstensen, 2003; Knight, Seymour et al., 2007; Mather et al., 2005; Rosler et al., 2005).
What might explain the dissociation between the threat detection results in this study and the results from more sustained attention tasks in previous studies? Studies with younger adults reveal that the rapid alerting system for threat is an automatic response mostly inaccessible to cognitive control (Anderson et al., 2003; Ohman & Mineka, 2001). As such, it is unlikely to be influenced by emotion regulation goals, unlike selective attention processes that operate after the nature of various stimuli have been discerned (Mather & Carstensen, 2005).
More information about the differences in automatic versus controlled processes in older adults' emotional attention and memory is available here
Anderson, A. K., Christoff, K., Panitz, D., De Rosa, E., Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2003). Neural correlates of the automatic processing of threat facial signals. Journal of Neuroscience, 23, 5627-5633.
Knight, M., Seymour, T. L., Gaunt, J. T., Baker, C., Nesmith, K., & Mather, M. (2007). Aging and goal-directed emotional attention: Distraction reverses emotional biases. Emotion, 7, 705-714.
Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2005). Aging and motivated cognition: The positivity effect in attention and memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 496-502.
Mather, M., & Knight, M. R. (2006). Angry faces get noticed quickly: Threat detection is not impaired among older adults. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 61 , P54-P57.
Ohman, A., Lundqvist, D., Esteves, F. (2001). The face in the crowd revisited: A threat advantage with schematic stimuli. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 381-396.
Ohman, A., & Mineka, S. (2001). Fears, phobias, and preparedness: Toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning. Psychological Review, 108, 483-522.
Rosler, A., Ulrich, C., Billino, J., Sterzer, P., Weidauer, S., Bernhardt, T., et al. (2005). Effects of arousing emotional scenes on the distribution of visuospatial attention: Changes with aging and early subcortical vascular dementia. Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 229-230, 109-116.