Lead researcher Antje Rauers of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany, said that when judging others' emotions in real life, people do not exclusively rely on emotional expressions.
"She said that instead, they use additional information, such as accumulated knowledge about a given situation and a particular person."
To investigate how these two processes vary with age, Rauers and colleagues Elisabeth Blanke and Michaela Riediger recruited 100 couples, some of whom were between the ages of 20 and 30 and some of whom were between the ages of 69 and 80. When they came to the lab, Rauer and colleagues first showed various faces to the participants, asking them to identify particular emotions.
Rauers said that they started by replicating past research, showing that older adults are typically worse than younger adults at interpreting emotions through facial expressions.
Then they took the study outside the lab, asking participants to record their own emotions and the emotions of their partners six times a day for two weeks using a cell phone.
When the participant's partner was nearby, the participant could use his or her partner's facial expressions as an indicator of their emotions.
Even though partners were sometimes in different places, they recorded their emotions at the exact same times throughout the day. This way, the researchers could tell if one partner was accurately estimating how the other partner felt at that particular moment.
These findings have been published in Psychological Science.