Changes in vocal emotion recognition across the life span

Emotion. 2021 Mar;21(2):315-325. doi: 10.1037/emo0000692. Epub 2019 Oct 24.


The ability to recognize emotions undergoes major developmental changes from infancy to adolescence, peaking in early adulthood, and declining with aging. A life span approach to emotion recognition is lacking in the auditory domain, and it remains unclear how the speaker's and listener's ages interact in the context of decoding vocal emotions. Here, we examined age-related differences in vocal emotion recognition from childhood until older adulthood and tested for a potential own-age bias in performance. A total of 164 participants (36 children [7-11 years], 53 adolescents [12-17 years], 48 young adults [20-30 years], 27 older adults [58-82 years]) completed a forced-choice emotion categorization task with nonverbal vocalizations expressing pleasure, relief, achievement, happiness, sadness, disgust, anger, fear, surprise, and neutrality. These vocalizations were produced by 16 speakers, 4 from each age group (children [8-11 years], adolescents [14-16 years], young adults [19-23 years], older adults [60-75 years]). Accuracy in vocal emotion recognition improved from childhood to early adulthood and declined in older adults. Moreover, patterns of improvement and decline differed by emotion category: faster development for pleasure, relief, sadness, and surprise and delayed decline for fear and surprise. Vocal emotions produced by older adults were more difficult to recognize when compared to all other age groups. No evidence for an own-age bias was found, except in children. These findings support effects of both speaker and listener ages on how vocal emotions are decoded and inform current models of vocal emotion perception. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longevity
  • Male
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*
  • Voice / physiology*