Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Memory for General and Specific Value Information in Younger and Older Adults: Measuring the Limits of Strategic Control

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Memory for General and Specific Value Information in Younger and Older Adults: Measuring the Limits of Strategic Control

Article excerpt

The ability to selectively remember important information is a critical function of memory. Although previous research has suggested that older adults are impaired in a variety of episodic memory tasks, recent work has demonstrated that older adults can selectively remember high-value information. In the present research, we examined how younger and older adults selectively remembered words with various assigned numeric point values, to see whether younger adults could remember more specific value information than could older adults. Both groups were equally good at recalling point values when recalling the range of high-value words, but younger adults outperformed older adults when recalling specific values. Although older adults were more likely to recognize negative value words, both groups exhibited control by not recalling negative value information. The findings suggest that although both groups retain high-value information, older adults rely more on gist-based encoding and retrieval operations, whereas younger adults are able to remember specific numeric value information.

The ability to selectively encode and retrieve important units of information is a critical function of memory, and one that is especially important to older adults in light of the age-related decline that is often observed in many memory tasks (for recent reviews, see Kester, Benjamin, Castel, & Craik, 2003; Zacks & Hasher, 2006). William James (1890) commented on this need for selectivity in memory, arguing that, "Selection is the very keel on which our mental ship is built. And in the case of memory its utility is obvious. If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing" (p. 680). Although this quote puts the case for selectivity rather strongly, it is clear that in order to maximize memory performance, it is necessary to decide what information is important to remember, and such selection often comes at the expense of memory for less pertinent information. The present investigation examines how aging influences the ability to selectively encode and retrieve information on the basis of value or importance of the information.

The control of learning processes is clearly important for mental functioning, and selective encoding is presumably a central ingrethent of this ability. Stuthes of cognitive aging have generally shown that executive control processes are less efficient in older adults (Hay & Jacoby, 1999; McDowd & Shaw, 2000; West, 1996). Specific examples of control processes that show an age-related decline include different aspects of working memory (Park et al., 2002), inhibitory control (Hasher, Zacks, & May, 1999; Kramer, Humphrey, Larish, & Logan, 1994), and task coordination (Kramer, Larish, Weber, & Bardell, 1999). Furthermore, older adults appear to have a specific impairment in remembering associative information (Castel & Craik, 2003; Naveh-Benjamin, 2000). In this context, the results of a recent study by Castel, Benjamin, Craik, and Watkins (2002) are somewhat surprising. In order to measure the degree to which younger and older adults are able to select the information that they remember, Castel and colleagues employed a procedure developed by Watkins and Bloom (1999) that involves remembering words paired with point values. Younger and older participants were presented with a list of words in which each word was paired with an arbitrary and unique point value. The participants were told that they should remember as many words as possible in order to maximize their score, which was the sum of the point values of recalled words. Thus, some words were "worth" more than other words, and it was under the participants' control to strategically encode and recall words of high value. The interesting finding was that although younger adults recalled more words overall than did older adults, both groups were equally good at remembering the high-value words, as evidenced by equally strong correlations between the probability of recalling a word and its point value. …

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