Younger people can't read emotions on older faces. Retailers beware!

A new study suggests that younger people may make more mistakes when judging the emotions of older people. Something retailers should take note of when recruiting and training young staff to serve older customers.

To younger adults, age-related changes, such as wrinkles and folds, look like facial expressions, so they may interfere with the perception of emotion in an older face and perhaps convey the wrong message.

In the study, published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers asked 65 college students to view computer-generated black and white faces. They viewed faces of three men and three women who were young (ages 19 to 21) or old (ages 76 to 83) displaying one of four facial expressions: neutral, happy, sad, or angry.

The study found that:

  • A facial expression, such as pure anger, on an older face is perceived differently — and less clearly — than the very same expression displayed on a younger person.
  • The facial expressions shown on older faces have reduced signal clarity.
  • They consequently have less impact on inferences regarding behavioural intentions.
  • Both effects can be expected to have negative consequences for rapport achieved in everyday interactions involving the elderly.

Researchers commented that the age of the observers also likely made a difference in the results. Had the study participants been closer in age to the older faces, they would have had more experience at recognizing older faces to overcome the difficulties posed by a less clear emotional signal.

Retailers beware!

When we conducted an Age-Friendly Audit of Apple in Singapore and UK one of the few identified weaknesses was the preponderance of young sales assistants in the Apple Stores. Why not a few mature assistants!? Same goes for most other retail/ sales interactions.