Gaze following is the primary means of establishing joint attention with others and is subject to age-related decline. In addition, young but not older adults experience an own-age bias in gaze following. The current research assessed the effects of subconscious processing on these age-related differences. Participants responded to targets that were either congruent or incongruent with the direction of gaze displayed in supraliminal and subliminal images of young and older faces. These faces displayed either neutral (Study 1) or happy and fearful (Study 2) expressions. In Studies 1 and 2, both age groups demonstrated gaze-directed attention by responding faster to targets that were congruent as opposed to incongruent with gaze-cues. In Study 1, subliminal stimuli did not attenuate the age-related decline in gaze-cuing, but did result in an own-age bias among older participants. In Study 2, gaze-cuing was reduced for older relative to young adults in response to supraliminal stimuli, and this could not be attributed to reduced visual acuity or age group differences in the perceived emotional intensity of the gaze-cue faces. Moreover, there were no age differences in gaze-cuing when responding to subliminal faces that were emotionally arousing. In addition, older adults demonstrated an own-age bias for both conscious and subconscious gaze-cuing when faces expressed happiness but not fear. We discuss growing evidence for age-related preservation of subconscious relative to conscious social perception, as well as an interaction between face age and valence in social perception.
Bailey, P. E., Slessor, G., Rendell, P. G., Bennetts, RJ., Campbell, A., & Ruffman, T. (2014). Age differences in conscious versus subconscious social perception: The influence of face age and valence on gaze following. Psychology and Aging, 29(3), 491-502. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036249