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) (, 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:



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.


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.


We conducted an eye-tracking visual-world experiment.


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.


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.