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Aging and Cognitive Skill Learning  

Jack Kuhns and Dayna R. Touron

The study of aging and cognitive skill learning is concerned with age-related changes and differences in how we gather, store, and use information and abilities. As life expectancy continues to rise, resulting in greater numbers and proportions of older individuals in the population, understanding the development and retention of skills across the lifespan is increasingly important. Older adults’ task performance in cognitive skill learning is often equal to that of young adults, albeit not as efficient, where older adults often require more time to complete training. Investigations of age differences in fundamental cognitive processes of attention, memory, or executive functioning generally reveal declines in older adults. These are related to a slowing of cognitive processing. Slowing in cognitive processing results in longer time necessary to complete tasks which can interfere with the fidelity of older adults’ cognitive processes in time-limited scenarios. Despite this, older adults maintain comparable rates of learning with young adults, albeit with some reduced efficiency in more complex tasks. The effectiveness of older adults’ learning is also impacted by a lesser tendency to recognize and adopt efficient learning strategies, as well as less flexibility in strategy use relative to younger adults. In learning tasks that involve a transition from using a complex initial strategy to relying on memory retrieval, older adults show a volitional avoidance of memory that is related to lower memory confidence and an impoverished mental model of the task. Declines in learning are not entirely problematic from a functional perspective, however, as older adults can often rely upon their extensive knowledge to compensate for certain deficiencies, particularly in everyday tasks. Indeed, domains where older adults have maintained expertise are somewhat insulated from other age-related declines.


Cultural Variance and Invariance of Age Differences in Social Cognition  

Li Chu, Yang Fang, Vivian Hiu-Ling Tsang, and Helene H. Fung

Cognitive processing of social and nonsocial information changes with age. These processes range from the ones that serve “mere” cognitive functions, such as recall strategies and reasoning, to those that serve functions that pertain to self-regulation and relating to others. However, aging and the development of social cognition unfold in different cultural contexts, which may assume distinct social norms and values. Thus, the resulting age-related differences in cognitive and social cognitive processes may differ across cultures. On the one hand, biological aging could render age-related differences in social cognition universal; on the other hand, culture may play a role in shaping some age-related differences. Indeed, many aspects of cognition and social cognition showed different age and culture interactions, and this makes the study of these phenomena more complex. Future aging research on social cognition should take cultural influences into consideration.


Neuroendocrine Mechanisms of Psychological Stress: Age and Sex Differences in Adults  

Allison E. Gaffey and Brandy S. Martinez

There are two main branches of the human stress response. The autonomic nervous system acts rapidly and is often referred to as our fight or flight response. The slow-acting arm of the stress response refers to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which triggers a hormone cascade resulting in the release of various hormones including cortisol. Healthy functioning of the HPA axis is tightly regulated by negative feedback, the endogenous self-regulatory mechanism of the system that terminates cortisol production. Alterations in HPA axis functioning are characterized by both hypo- and hypersecretion of cortisol in response to psychological stress and are typically associated with negative physical health outcomes as well as clinical pathology. What remains poorly understood is how HPA activity changes with age and the pathways through which these changes occur. In addition to changes associated with the normative aging process, age-related changes in cortisol may also be driven by the cumulative effects of stress experienced across the life span (e.g., traumatic stress); stressors unique to later life (e.g., caring for an ailing loved one); or health problems. Although research examining how the HPA axis might change with age is inconsistent, there appears to be reasonable evidence to suggest that: (1) both stress-induced and diurnal cortisol output may increase with age, potentially beginning with changes in the cortisol awakening response, (2) variability in cortisol production increases with age, (3) diurnal (i.e., daily) cortisol rhythms are preserved in later life, and (4) age-related differences in cortisol may be more distinct in men than in women. However, it remains unknown whether these changes in older adults’ physiology reflect maladaptive functioning of the HPA axis or interact with other health concerns to negatively affect overall psychophysiological health. Further research is needed to disentangle the interplay between aging and HPA axis functioning to better understand what alterations are associated with the normative aging process, when they occur, and how they influence longevity.


Hindsight Bias in Political Decision Making  

Rüdiger F. Pohl and Edgar Erdfelder

Hindsight bias describes the tendency of persons—after the outcome of an event is known—to overestimate their foresight. For example, following a political election, persons tend to retrospectively adjust their predictions to the actual outcome. These judgment distortions are very robust and have been observed in a variety of domains and tasks. About 50 years of research on hindsight bias have meanwhile brought a wealth of findings and insights. Core research questions are (1) how to explain hindsight bias in terms of underlying processes, (2) whether there are individual differences in susceptibility, (3) how the bias possibly impedes decision-making in applied contexts, such as political decision-making, and (4) how possibly to overcome it. Theoretical approaches suggest that there are distinct components of hindsight bias, and that several, mainly cognitive, mechanisms are responsible for them. Using stochastic models of hindsight bias allows us to estimate the relative proportions of these mechanisms. Depending on the task, motivational factors may also exert their influence. In addition, the strength of hindsight bias appears to be related to some personality traits and also to age. For example, some authors found that hindsight bias tends to increase with the tendency toward favorable self-presentation and to decrease with intelligence. Moreover, lifespan studies have shown that children and older adults show larger hindsight bias than young adults. Hindsight bias has been found in political decision-making (as well as in other applied domains). Surprisingly, attempts to overcome hindsight bias have mainly failed, whereas only a few debiasing techniques show promising results. In sum, one important conclusion is to be continuously aware of the potentially distorting influence of outcome knowledge on the evaluation of our own (or other’s) prior knowledge state.


Prospective Memory and Cognitive Aging  

Simon J. Haines, Jill Talley Shelton, Julie D. Henry, Gill Terrett, Thomas Vorwerk, and Peter G. Rendell

Tasks that involve remembering to carry out future intentions (such as remembering to attend an appointment), and the cognitive processes that enable the completion of such tasks (such as planning), are referred to as prospective memory (PM). PM is important for promoting quality of life across many domains. For instance, failures in remembering to meet social commitments are linked to social isolation, whereas failures in remembering to fulfill occupational goals are linked to poorer vocational outcomes. Declines in PM functioning are of particular concern for older adults because of the strong links between PM and functional capacity. The relationship between age and PM appears to be complex, dependent on many factors. While some aspects of PM appear to hold up relatively well in late adulthood, others appear to show consistent age-related decline. Variability in age differences appears to partially reflect the fact that there are diverse types of PM tasks, which impose demands on a range of cognitive processes that are differentially affected by aging. Specifically, the level and type of environmental support associated with different PM task types appears to be a meaningful determinant of age-related effects. Given the worldwide changing age demographics, the interest in age-related effects on PM will likely intensify, and a primary focus will be how to optimize and maintain PM capacity for this population. This is already reflected in the increasing research on interventions focused on enhancing PM capacity in late adulthood, and points to important future directions in this area of study.


Interpersonal Communication Across the Life Span  

Carla L. Fisher and Thomas Roccotagliata

From birth to death, our interactions with others are what inform our identity and give meaning to life. Ultimately, it is interpersonal communication that is the bedrock of wellness. Much of the scholarship on interpersonal communication places communication in the background, characterized merely as a resource, symptom, or contributing factor to change. In the study of our interpersonal experiences, communication must be at the forefront. As a pragmatic lens concerned with real-world issues, a life-span perspective of interpersonal scholarship provides boundless opportunities for bridging science and practice in meaningful ways that improve social life on multiple levels, from families to schools to government to hospitals. Interpersonal communication research that is concerned with life-span issues tends to prioritize communicative phenomena and bring the communication dynamics of our relational lives to the surface. Typically, this scholarship is organized around the various stages or phases of life. In other words, researchers concerned with interpersonal communication often contextualize this behavior based on dimensions of human development and life changes we typically encounter across the life course, those major life experiences from birth to death. Much of that scholarship also centers on how we develop competence in communication across time or how communication competence is critical to our ability to attain relational satisfaction as well as a high psychological and physical quality of life. This research also highlights the influential role of age, human development, and generational differences, recognizing that our place in the life span impacts our goals and needs and that our sociocultural-historical experiences also inform our communication preferences. A life-span perspective of interpersonal communication also encompasses various theoretical paradigms that have been developed within and outside the communication discipline. Collectively, this scholarship helps illustrate the communicative nature of human life across the entire life trajectory.