Joint Attention is Slowed in Older Adults

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Scripps College, Psychology (Scripps)

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Background/Study Context: The automatic propensity to orient to the location where other people are looking is the main way of establishing joint attention with others. Whereas joint attention has been mostly investigated with young adults, the present study examines age-related differences in the magnitude and time course of joint attention.

Methods: Forty-three community-dwelling seniors and 43 younger adults performed a visuospatial task. The procedures closely follow those of gaze-cueing tasks commonly used to investigate joint attention.

Results: The findings revealed that a gaze-cueing effect occurs for both younger and older adults, with an equivalent average magnitude but with different time courses. The effect peaks later in older adults.

Conclusion: Age-related differences in joint attention could be linked to a more general cognitive slowing rather than to poorer basic social skills. The present study adds to the growing interest in gerontological research regarding social attention.

The use of another person’s eye gaze as a cue to shift attention is a fundamental skill in social interactions (for a review, see Frischen, Bayliss, & Tipper, 2007). The other person’s gaze triggers reflexive, automatic attention shifts in the corresponding direction in the observer. When attention is directed toward a particular location, the visual processing of targets in that location is facilitated, resulting in faster reaction times (RTs) to detect or discriminate targets at that location than in locations that are not gaze-cued (the gaze congruity effect or gaze-cueing effect, e.g., Bayliss, di Pellegrino, & Tipper, 2005; Driver et al., 1999; Friesen & Kingstone, 1998). This automatic propensity to orient to the same location where other people are looking is the main way of establishing joint attention with others (Emery, 2000; Moore & Dunham, 1995). Joint attention is fundamental to human learning, as well as to the development of social competence throughout the life span. It has been widely studied in infants for decades (e.g., Farroni, Massaccesi, Pividori, & Johnson, 2004; Scaife & Bruner, 1975), as it is key to the development of social cognition in early life (see Striano & Reid, 2008, for a review). In contrast, little research has been conducted with older adults. In keeping with previous findings of age-related impairments in more complex aspects of social perception (e.g., theory of mind and emotion perception; Slessor, Phillips, & Bull, 2007; Sullivan & Ruffman, 2004) or interpersonal behavior (Henry, von Hippel, & Baynes, 2009; von Hippel & Dunlop, 2005), age-related declines in the ability to establish joint attention have been found: Older adults showed a significant gaze-cueing effect, as their RT was facilitated when the target appeared in the gazed-at location, but the effect was significantly smaller than for younger adults (Slessor, Laird, Phillips, Bull, & Philippou, 2010; Slessor, Phillips, & Bull, 2008). Recent findings from Slessor et al., 2016 even show that older adults do not use eye-gaze cues to engage in joint attention, highlighting social difficulties for decoding critical information from the eye region. The time course of the gaze-cueing effect is a key feature for a better understanding of the joint attention process. Time course is commonly used in visuospatial cueing tasks to provide a unique window into the mechanisms that facilitate or inhibit the covert orienting of attention to the locations of cued targets (Posner & Cohen, 1984; Wilson & Pratt, 2007). It is examined by manipulating the delay period between the onset of the cue and the onset of the target (i.e., cue-target onset asynchrony, or CTOA). The time course of joint attention is well known for young people. Previous investigations have consistently demonstrated that the gaze-cueing effect emerges quickly (i.e., at short CTOAs of 105 to 300 ms) and that this facilitation effect exhibits a relatively short time course, disappearing by a 1005-ms CTOA (see Frischen et al., 2007, for review). Early research found age-related differences in the time course in several attention tasks, including visual cueing tasks (e.g., Castel, Chasteen, Scialfa, & Pratt, 2003; Madden, Connelly, & Pierce, 1994). No study has, however, examined the time course of joint attention in older people. The present study asks then to what extent the time course of joint attention is affected by aging. Because older adults may be slower to engage spatially based attention (e.g., Castel et al., 2003), it is hypothesized that joint attention takes longer to build up in older adults, in comparison with young people.

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