Research

Our research is led by Professor Derek Isaacowitz and is funded by the National Institute on Aging.

Research Questions

Aging & Attention to Emotional Content

Research has consistently shown that people differ meaningfully in happiness and well-being, and that these differences can be linked to both personality and age. For example, optimistic people appear happier than their more pessimistic peers, whereas older people have been shown in recent research to show surprisingly high levels of well-being compared to their younger counterparts. Many of our studies aim to explain why this is the case, focusing on the role of attention in processing emotional information.

We often use eye tracking to investigate ways different people process emotional material in their environment while viewing different types of material. Tracking eye movements allows us to unlock the connections between how we feel and what we see. We also use innovative computer tasks, behavioral observations, and physiological measurement to examine how people of different ages behave and feel when in emotional situations.

Current projects are exploring the individual and age differences in attention to positive and negative emotional content, as well as the effects of such tendencies on memory, behavior, and emotional well-being.

Aging & Emotion Regulation

People also vary in the ways in which they manage—or regulate—their emotions. In our lab, we study many different emotion regulation strategies, or the specific ways that people try to increase or decrease their emotional feelings and expressions. We examine which strategies people use, how effective they are, and whether emotion regulation varies with age.

Current projects examine emotion regulation by looking at visual attention, different ways of thinking, the choices people make, and emotional situations people enter or avoid. We look at emotion regulation both within the controlled environment of the lab and in everyday life, using smartphones, tablets, or laptops. Past research projects have also examined how people regulate the emotions of others.

Aging & Emotion Perception

Research has found age differences in how people recognize emotions such as anger, sadness, and happiness in others. Although older people often perform worse on these tasks, they show no deficits in their relationships and often report high levels of satisfaction with their social lives. One reason for this discrepancy may be that past research has typically relied on still photographs with exaggerated expressions.

In our work, we examine emotion perception in more dynamic situations, such as viewing ongoing conversations and interacting with real people, or provide people with more information about the context in which the emotion is happening. We combine eye tracking with a range of different stimuli and situations to examine whether age differences exist in these more realistic tasks, as well as how emotion perception is related to well-being.

Recent projects have focused on how pairs of people establish rapport during a social interaction, how people use background information to judge emotions, and how emotion perception is related to visual attention.

Methodology

We use a multi-method approach to understand age and individual differences in emotional processing. These methods include:

Eye Tracking

We use eye tracking to record where participants direct their visual attention toward emotional content, including still pictures and videos. We use a range of different systems:

  • Stationary eye trackers that sit on the desktop, which track where a person is looking on a desktop computer
  • Mobile eye trackers that people wear (shown below), which allow people to move around within an environment
  • Portable eye trackers that are lightweight and can be used within people’s homes or other places
February 13, 2012 – Julia Harris places glasses with a mobile tracking device on Derek Isaacowitz, associate professor of psychology in the Lifespan Emotional Development Lab (LEDlab).

Psychophysiology

In order to investigate the physiological response participants during our studies, we assess various outcome measures. Our system is from Mindware Technologies Ltd. and is equipped to measure the following:

  • Electrocardiogram and Cardiac Impedance: allows assessment of the cardiovascular and vascular changes in response to a study’s experimental manipulations. More advanced statistics can be computed offline such as changes in heart rate, heart rate variability, blood flow in the vasculature, and respiration rate.
  • Electrodermal Response: is used to measures changes in electrical property of the skin in response to the emotional state of an individual.
  • Electromyography (EMG): Facial EMG is used to measure activation of specific muscles to objectively index emotional expressions.
Physiological data recording example.