RESEARCH ARTICLE


Priming Younger and Older Adults’ Sentence Comprehension: Insights from Dynamic Emotional Facial Expressions and Pupil Size Measures



Maria Nella Carminati1, Pia Knoeferle2, *
1 Bielefeld University, Bielefeld, Germany
2 Humboldt University Berlin zu Berlin, Institute for German Language and Linguistics, Berlin, Germany


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© Carminati and Knoeferle; Licensee Bentham Open

open-access license: This is an open access article licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 4.0 International Public License (CC BY-NC 4.0) (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/legalcode), which permits unrestricted, non-commercial use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the work is properly cited.

* Address correspondence to this author at the Humboldt University zu Berlin - Institute for German Language and Linguistics, Berlin, Germany; Tel: +493020939672; E-mail: pia.knoeferle@hu-berlin.de


Abstract

Background:

Prior visual-world research has demonstrated that emotional priming of spoken sentence processing is rapidly modulated by age. Older and younger participants saw two photographs of a positive and of a negative event side-by-side and listened to a spoken sentence about one of these events. Older adults’ fixations to the mentioned (positive) event were enhanced when the still photograph of a previously-inspected positive-valence speaker face was (vs. wasn’t) emotionally congruent with the event/sentence. By contrast, the younger adults exhibited such an enhancement with negative stimuli only.

Objective:

The first aim of the current study was to assess the replicability of these findings with dynamic face stimuli (unfolding from neutral to happy or sad). A second goal was to assess a key prediction made by socio-emotional selectivity theory, viz. that the positivity effect (a preference for positive information) displayed by older adults involves cognitive effort.

Method:

We conducted an eye-tracking visual-world experiment.

Results:

Most priming and age effects, including the positivity effects, replicated. However, against our expectations, the positive gaze preference in older adults did not co-vary with a standard measure of cognitive effort - increased pupil dilation. Instead, pupil size was significantly bigger when (both younger and older) adults processed negative than positive stimuli.

Conclusion:

These findings are in line with previous research on the relationship between positive gaze preferences and pupil dilation. We discuss both theoretical and methodological implications of these results.

Keywords: Cognitive effort, Emotional processing, Facial expressions, Positivity effect, Pupil dilation, Sentence processing, Speaker cues, Visual-world paradigm.