Do our social skills decline as we age? That question forms part of a field of work involving the collection of long-term data on how social skills develop – or weaken – and what can be done about it.
While a wealth of research exists on how humans and other animals socially bond, the difficulty of tracking how this changes over the course of entire lives, or even between generations, means studies on that topic are rarer.
What we’ve known until now has often been in “isolated snippets,” says Professor Heather Ferguson, a researcher in cognitive psychology at the University of Kent in the UK. That means it’s been hard to pinpoint exactly when age-related changes in different social skills take place. But as societies age, it is increasingly crucial to know what these changes mean for wellbeing, according to Prof. Ferguson. “Once social abilities decline, people can start to feel lonely and depressed, which can then have a big impact on physical health,” she said.
Prof. Ferguson is principal investigator on CogSoCoAGE, a wide-ranging project conducting in-depth studies on hundreds of people aged all the way from 10 to 90 years to see how social skills change over time. “It’s basically a huge battery of assessments to look at different aspects of social and cognitive skills in a really diverse way,” she said.
These cover both lab tests and real-world interactions, ranging from questionnaires to measurements of brain activity and eye movements using glasses fitted with video cameras. Prof. Ferguson is currently repeating tests with people who first did them a couple of years ago to see if there are any changes over time.
One of the key focuses of CogSoCoAGE is to assess the link, as we age, between social skills based on the ability to infer information about others – termed theory of mind – and more general cognitive skills known as executive functions that involve control of behaviours.
Social skills decline in old age
Prof. Ferguson’s team has already found that a decline in certain social and related cognitive functions, such as memory, planning and the ability to inhibit impulses, actually begins much earlier than generally thought – in one’s late 30s and early 40s, rather than in old age.
From tracking eye movements, the team found that in one-to-one conversations, older adults tend to spend less time looking at the other person’s face and, instead, look at the background – indicating difficulty engaging with demanding social information.
“That’s quite important, because if you’re not looking at someone’s face, you’re missing a huge amount of cues about their meaning, intentions and emotions,” she said.
Similarly, Prof. Ferguson says that older adults tend to spend less time looking at other people when walking around in the everyday world, which could make them less able to interact with others. “They’re sort of subtle differences in the way you experience life that can have a massive impact on opportunities to engage in social interaction,” she said.
Other skills, like empathy, actually increase
So far, the overall results are, perhaps unsurprisingly, complex. Social abilities that rely less on memory or inhibitory skills – such as the ability to understand someone else’s viewpoint – see no decline with age, while others – such as empathy for physical pain – actually show an improvement, says Prof. Ferguson. Conversely, empathy for social pain reduces with age.
The researchers’ studies also looked at whether it’s possible to train underlying cognitive skills to enhance social abilities. They found that any improvement in one type of task had limited correlation with improvements in others.
The project findings could eventually lead to more tailored programmes and apps for well-being, says Prof. Ferguson. At the same time, she says, it should be kept in mind that altering one type of social interaction could also have unanticipated effects on others. In fact, negative impacts could arise from measures such as forcing a person to look at someone else’s face if they find that hard when interacting.
A version of this article post was originally published on Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission.
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