Older adults typically perform worse than younger adults on memory tests. Although this is usually explained as being due to age-related brain declines, explaining cognitive aging from a purely biological point of view ignores the key role of social factors in contributing to age differences in performance. Research in the Cognition & Aging lab is broadly focused on understanding how social context and socioemotional goals affect memory in younger and older adults. We pursue this objective in three lines of research, which are each described in more detail below.
(1) Stereotype threat in older adults
Our first line of research examines how older adults' memory performance is affected by age-based stereotype threat. Stereotype threat occurs when people are concerned that poor performance will confirm a negative self-relevant stereotype. In response to this, people can underperform compared to their potential. For example, older adults are stereotyped as being senile and prone to "senior moments". When reminded of this stereotype, older adults can experience age-based stereotype threat and underperform on cognitive tests. This has important clinical implications. Research in our lab has shown that age-based stereotype threat can impair older adults' performance on the brief cognitive tests that are used in primary care settings to screen for dementia. With the support of funding from the National Institute on Aging, research in our lab has focused on (a) examining the mechanisms underlying this effect, (b) identifying which older adults are most affected by this, and (c) testing the efficacy of interventions to eliminate stereotype threat and therefore improve older adults' performance.
(2) The costs and benefits of collaboration on memory
Our second line of research focuses on how collaboration affects memory. Remembering the past is often a social activity. People collaboratively remember the events of their lives with close others, juries collectively recall trial events before reaching verdicts, students participate in study groups to master lecture materials, and patients in therapy groups share their experiences as part of treatment. However, collaborative recall is not always beneficial. Although a group of people working together remembers more than any one individual, they recall less than the same number of people working apart whose answers are non-redundantly combined. This is known as collaborative inhibition. Thus, although two heads are better than one, two heads apart are better than two heads together. Recent research in our lab has focused on how collaborative recall affects memory errors, and on how collaborative memory outcomes vary based upon partner characteristics.
(3) The positivity effect
Our third line of research focuses on the positivity effect. This refers to the fact that compared to younger adults, older adults are relatively more positive and/or relatively less negative in their attention and memory processes. According to socioemotional selectivity theory, this is because older adults are more likely to view their time left in life as “running out”, which in turn causes them to prioritize emotion-related goals. In our lab, we have been testing the role of future time horizons in contributing to positivity effects and evaluating whether positivity effects are related to individual differences in fluid cognitive capabilities. We have also examined how older adults' time perspective and positivity effects are modulated by exposure to ageist stereotypes.