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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Aging, Motivation, and Memory for Important Information

  • Author(s): Hargis, Mary Bryce
  • Advisor(s): Castel, Alan D
  • et al.

Across the adult lifespan, we pursue many different goals: we may learn new information, try to stay healthy, and build relationships with loved ones. Previous work (e.g., socioemotional selectivity theory, Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999) suggests that while younger adults pursue primarily knowledge-based goals, older adults pursue primarily social and emotional goals. Though this shift in priorities is supported by substantial evidence, what motivates us to learn in healthy aging may be more complex than a single theory may suggest. The current Dissertation investigates how learners remember information with primarily social goals (Chapter 2) and primarily knowledge-based goals (Chapters 3 and 4), as well as how variables such as age and information importance can affect memory and metacognition.

Though age-related deficits for associative information are well-established (e.g., Naveh-Benjamin, 2000), older adults are often able to prioritize and associate items in memory that are the most important to remember, given their learning goals. Metacognition is a critical component of how we monitor and control our learning, and some evidence in this Dissertation suggests that we do not have accurate representations of our memory abilities. However, overconfidence is not ubiquitous: for example, we are aware that we may not be very good at remembering other peoples’ names; also, after a difficult associative memory task, we may remedy our overconfidence about our own memory abilities and others’.

An overarching theme among these studies is the investigation of how people learn what it is they need to know in order to achieve their goals. The current research suggests that, especially when given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, learners young and old can successfully pursue a diverse array of learning goals. While substantial previous work focuses on a shift from knowledge-based to socioemotional goals in older adulthood, the current studies support the notion that a more general value-based mechanism guides learning behavior. These previous socio-emotional models are a helpful framework, but the evidence suggests that value and importance drive learning and goal pursuit in aging. Determining what information is important to remember, what information can be forgotten, and what information will be useful in achieving a goal are complex cognitive processes in which many older adults may still be quite successful, even in light of deficits in memory.

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