Anita Twele is a graduate student in developmental psychology at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. She will finish her Master’s in the Summer of 2021 and will enter her PhD at Brock in Fall 2021. Her research interests include person perception, face perception, first impressions, and ageing. Her current work focuses on first impressions of older adult faces, with a specific interest in the role that ageist stereotypes play in forming these first impressions and how to mitigate the negative consequences that these impressions can have on behaviour towards older adults. The long-term goal of her research is to help inform policy and training programs for workers in settings relevant to older adults, such as healthcare, retirement homes, and community centres.
Stern or confident? First impressions of older adult faces
Anita Twele, Brock University, Canada
First Impressions (FIs) based on facial cues have significant consequences in real-world contexts, including emergency health care responses and election outcomes. Most research has focused on FIs of young adults (YAs). For this age demographic FIs can be summarized as varying along two underlying dimensions: Trustworthiness (intent to help vs. harm) and dominance (one’s ability to carry out intentions). These dimensions align with functional accounts, according to which FIs serve to detect potential threat.
Older adults (OAs) are a vulnerable population and a rapidly growing age demographic around the world. FIs have the potential to influence how OAs are treated by others which, in turn, influences their well-being. According to the Social Content Model, stereotypes of OAs as a group include high warmth and low competence. These stereotypes have several consequences for behaviour towards OAs, including patronizing behaviour, being seen as low in social status, and reduced employment opportunities. FIs can be influenced by group stereotypes, so it is important to understand what types of impressions are formed of OAs as individuals.
Further, as social goals vary with age one might expect the dimensions underlying FIs of OAs to vary with perceiver age and differ from those underlying FIs of YAs. Surprisingly little research has focused on FIs of OAs and how they differ from FIs of YAs. The present study addressed this gap in the literature by using a data-driven approach to examine dimensions underlying FIs of OAs and whether those dimensions vary by perceiver age.
In Experiment 1, YA (n= 87) and OA (n=91) participants provided unconstrained, written descriptions in response to OA faces. From these descriptors, 18 trait categories were identified that were similar, but not identical, across age groups. In Experiment 2, YA (n= 547) and OA (n=633) participants rated 56 OA faces on the trait words identified for their age group in Experiment 1. In separate principal components analyses, two dimensions emerged for OA faces for both YA and OA participant ratings. These two dimensions are sternness and confidence and were highly similar for both age groups.
Our results suggest that there are no significant differences in perceiver age when forming first impressions of OA faces. We are currently examining the relationship between the two dimensions for OA faces and other models in person perception research, including warmth and competence in the Social Content Model, to determine the extent to which sternness and confidence are conceptually similar to trustworthiness and dominance (i.e., the dimensions underlying FIs of YA faces).
The current research has broad implications for theories of first impressions and many aspects of older adults’ everyday life, including opportunities to understand how FIs of OAs influence behaviour towards them and mitigate any negative consequences. Specifically, understanding the impact of these FIs could provide ample opportunity to engage those who work with stakeholders (e.g., health care providers and home workers) on developing awareness for interacting with older adults without letting FIs bias behavioural responses.