Sex, Education, Age, and Cautiousness: Implications for Counselors

By Wright, Bonnie McLean; Carscaddon, David Mitchell et al. | Adultspan Journal, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Sex, Education, Age, and Cautiousness: Implications for Counselors


Wright, Bonnie McLean, Carscaddon, David Mitchell, Lambert, Steven Dennis, Adultspan Journal


A cross-sectional study of educated men and women showed that cautiousness, as measured by perceived problem-solving ability, does not increase with age. Sex differences were nonsignificant. The results are discussed in terms of R. Schultz and J. Heckhausen's (1996) Life Span Model of Successful Aging.

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Problem solving is an important skill at any age for men, women, and children. Data indicated that problem-solving skills decreased with age, as reflected in individuals' psychomotor skills (Welford, 1977). Psychomotor ability is sometimes interpreted as cautiousness or as a slowing of reaction time (Welford, 1977). Two important measures in the field of psychomotor ability are tracking proficiency, measured as time on target, and psychomotor reminiscence. Reminiscence is a gain in task proficiency following a rest period. Wright and Payne (1985) found large significant differences in psychomotor tracking proficiency when a sample of elderly adults was compared with a sample of college students on mirror tracing and rotary pursuit tracking equipment. Wright and Payne also found that the sex differences in psychomotor reminiscence observed in young adults by some researchers (e.g., Buxton & Grant, 1939; Coppage & Payne, 1981; Hsu & Payne, 1979; Huang & Payne, 1975; McLean & Payne, 1982) was not observed in their own sample of elderly adults. The findings indicated that elderly adults seemed to be more cautious in their approach to eye-hand coordination tasks. This finding might have been due to general psychomotor slowing with advanced age (Wright & Payne, 1985). A larger cross-sectional sample by Thumin (1962) also pointed to a trend of general psychomotor slowing with age. Thumin used a rotary pursuit apparatus to test individuals between 11 and 72 years old. He also found that reminiscence decreased in advanced adulthood.

Personality traits have also been found to be a factor in an individual's cautiousness. In a review of the literature on cautiousness, Woodruff-Pak (1988) pointed out that a "cautiousness strategy can be viewed as a natural outcome of the slowing of response speed and the decline of sensory and motor capacities" (p. 350); thus, the term cautiousness can be used to describe actions and can be used as behavioral descriptors. Because so much of the research on cautiousness used a cross-sectional design, Woodruff-Pak described cautiousness as a cohort effect rather than as an inevitable change with age. Mirowsky (1995), for example, studied "sense of control" using an eight-item inventory with two random samples of adults, ages 18-90 years. He found significant steep declines after the 40s. He also found that adjustment for education accounted for more than 25% of the association observed between sense of control and age.

As a personality trait, cautiousness may be observed as desurgency, the term used on the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF; Cattell, Eber, & Tatsuoka, 1970). At the other end of the continuum is surgency, which indicates a more carefree individual. Fozard (1972) studied 970 men (ages 28-83 years), using the 16PF, and found that the correlation between factor F (surgency) and age was -.23, which indicated greater cautiousness (p < .05) with increasing age. Data of this type were also cross-sectional and might have been influenced by history-graded influences such as education availability. Another dimension of cautiousness is in terms of errors of omission, which are more common than errors of commission in samples of elderly research participants (see, e.g., Botwinick, 1978; Heyn, 1980). This is also thought to be due to history-graded factors such as education.

A currently popular research tool, which may be partially interpreted in terms of cautiousness, is the Problem Solving Inventory (PSI; Heppner, 1988a). The PSI consists of 35 statements that are ranked on a 6-point rating scale and yields three subscores and a total score. …

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