Social Cognition And Aging Research Paper

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There is a rich and abundant history of research in cognitive aging. However, studies typically have ignored the influence of social factors on cognition with one exception, metacognition. More specifically, there has been considerable research on self and other beliefs about memory such as personal control and memory self-efficacy. In the 1990s social cognition and aging research has grown considerably in both breadth and scope. This movement reflects a broader interface between mainstream social cognition and cognitive aging to better understand how cognition in the aging adult operates in a social context.

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There are pervasive findings in the cognitive aging research that demonstrate age-related decline in cognitive performance such as working memory, abstract reasoning, and speed of processing. However, taking into consideration the pragmatics of cognition and social-contextual factors may help broaden our understanding of cognitive functioning in older adults beyond linear decline. Accordingly, a recent wave of studies has begun to examine social cognitive functioning in an effort to better understand the effects of cognitive aging and associated adaptive developmental processes. These studies raise important issues in relation to cognitive functioning such as age-related increases in experience, pragmatic knowledge, social expertise, beliefs about aging and social values, and social contextual variation. In addition, they highlight the importance of considering both the basic cognitive architecture of the aging adult and the functional architecture of everyday cognition in a social context. In the latter case, even if certain basic cognitive mechanisms have declined, older adults may possess appropriate knowledge and skills in a given context to function adequately through adaptation and compensation. Before we entertain these issues and findings in the extant literature, let us first consider a definition of the social cognitive perspective as it is applied to aging research.

1. Definition Of Social Cognition

The basic goal of a social cognitive perspective is to understand how individuals make sense of themselves, others, and events in everyday life. These goals are reflected in the study of (a) cognitive mechanisms that may explain social cognitive processes (as illustrated above); (b) the content and structure of social knowledge; and (c) the influence of social situational and individual demands on social information processes and social knowledge.

To illustrate these points within an adult development and aging perspective, first consider the well-documented finding that age-related decline in processing capacity correlates with age-related decline in cognitive performance. The question is whether agerelated changes in working memory, attentional capacity, and speed of processing also relate to and/or explain age changes in social cognitive processes (Hess 1999, Schwarz et al. 1999). Researchers have suggested that age-related decline in processing capacity could explain the finding that older adults rely more on easily accessible trait-based information when making social judgments as opposed to more elaborative processing (Hess 1999).

However, from the second goal perspective listed above, age-related change in content and structure of social knowledge, accessibility of this knowledge held in memory, and related motivation and goals of the individual in the context of concurrent processing resources may offer competing explanations of age differences in social reasoning. Finally, personal and situational factors associated with aging could also explain a reliance on easily accessible social knowledge and beliefs. For example, older adulthood has been associated with a decrease in personal characteristics such as tolerance for ambiguity and attitudinal flexibility (Blanchard-Fields 1999). It may be the case that such decreases in cognitive flexibility may lead to social processing biases (Hess 1999). Alternatively, older adulthood is associated with changing situational factors, which influence social goals such as an increase in the importance of emotional considerations. In this case such an increase in emotional salience influences how information is processed (see Turk-Charles and Carstensen 1999 for a review). Let us now turn to each of these goal perspectives in more detail.

2. Cognitive Mechanisms And Social Cognition

There is a history of social cognition research that posits information-processing models for making social judgments (e.g., Gilbert and Malone 1995). For example, Gilbert and Malone have shown that the ability to make nonbiased attributional judgments depends upon the cognitive demand accompanying those judgments. In this case individuals are more likely to rely on their initial dispositional attribution (attributing the cause of an outcome to personal characteristics of the main character involved in producing the outcome), ignoring compelling situational causes. Accordingly, in a number of studies, Blanchard-Fields and co-workers (see BlanchardFields 1999 for a review) have found that older adults consistently attributed the cause of problem dilemmas to dispositions about the primary protagonist more than younger age groups. However, this was only demonstrated when events reflected negative interpersonal content. It may be the case that older adults relied more heavily on easily accessible dispositional attributions given the demands on cognitive resources to deliberate about situational factors. However, keep in mind that these findings were content-specific (i.e., only found when situations were negative and interpersonally oriented).

Hess and co-workers (see Hess 1999 for a review) have demonstrated that the use of diagnostic trait information (such as immoral behavior) in making initial impressions of an individual varied with age. They find age differences in the use of negative information in modifying impressions. When first presented with a positive portrayal of an individual (e.g., honest) followed by negative information (e.g., dishonest behavior) older adults were more willing to modify their impression from an initially positive to a more negative one. However, older adults did not modify their first impression when it was an initially negative portrayal followed by positive information. Younger adults did not exhibit this pattern of impression change. Instead, they engaged in effortful processing of the text in their concern with the situational consistency of the new information presented. Hess suggests that older adults may rely more on life experiences and social rules of behavior in interpreting these types of situations, whereas young adults were more concerned with situational consistency of the new information presented. Again, it is suggested that older adults do not correct their initial impressions because they were affected by the availability of negative information or a negativity bias. Such influences of processing biases suggest that decline in cognitive functioning limits the ability of older adults to override the impact of more easily accessible information such as the negativity bias. However, Hess also suggests that the use of such information appears to be related to age differences in social experience and changes in the salience of specific behavioral realms.

Finally, another example of a processing resource approach to social cognition and aging is illustrated in the work of Schwarz et al. (1999). They found that manipulating the salience of the information given, and thus its accessibility, can modify social judgments in young and older adults. However, in some circumstances, older adults’ judgments show smaller context effects than young adults. One explanation of such findings is that reduced processing resources constrain the processing of contextual information by older adults.

Based on the above research, it appears that both processing resource limitations as well as the social content of memory play an important role in understanding how older adults process social information. However, it is also the case that the extent to which social information is accessible may operate independently of a processing resource limitation to influence social judgments. Next we will explore the issue of knowledge-based views of social cognitive processing.

3. Social Knowledge And Social Cognition

There is a history of social cognition research that suggests that strongly held and easily accessible social beliefs and knowledge are activated automatically and can influence social judgments in general, and promote social judgment biases in particular (e.g., Gilbert and Malone 1995). The prepotent influence of such beliefs and knowledge on social judgments may operate even when individuals are not constrained by high cognitive demands and possess ample resources to engage in elaborative processing. This brings into play alternative explanations for older adults’ tendencies to rely on easily accessible information in making social judgments. First, as alluded to earlier, older adults may exhibit a cognitive style that forecloses further consideration of information such as intolerance for ambiguity or a need for structure. As indicated above, age-related decreases in attitudinal flexibility may lead to biases in social judgment. Second, strong attitudinal beliefs and values may be evoked by the presenting situation. For example, Blanchard-Fields (1999) suggests that particular types of situations such as negative interpersonal relationship situations trigger relatively automatic trait and rule-based social rules or schemas pertinent to the actor in the problem. In this case the individual may not engage in intentional, effortful processing of detailed information. Instead, the older adults may have relied more on activated social beliefs resulting in dispositional biases. Thus, it is not a matter of insufficient processing capacity to engage in elaborative social inference, but overriding considerations (e.g., irrepressible beliefs or values).

Accordingly, Chen and Blanchard-Fields (reviewed in Blanchard-Fields 1999) explored both a processing explanation and a belief content hypothesis to explain dispositional biases in older adults’ attributions about negative relationship situations. They manipulated the timing of when dispositional ratings were collected and obtained belief statements regarding appropriate behaviors in the social situations presented. They found that older adults produced more dispositional biases only when time was constrained. However, they also found that older adults made more evaluative rule statements about the main character than younger adults and this rendered all age differences in dispositional biases nonsignificant.

Such findings suggest that a knowledge-based explanation of social judgments is a viable alternative to resource limitations. This approach is also evidenced in the research examining the influence of social situational factors and cognitive functioning in older adults. In this case, the research focus is on one’s changing life context and adaptation or social competence. We turn to this approach next.

4. Social Situational Factors, Social Competency, And Social Cognition And Aging

The social cognition paradigm has offered an enriched understanding of competency in older adulthood. From this perspective, social competence is seen as an important and valid dimension of cognition and intelligence. Social cognitive performance, from this perspective, incorporates principles derived from the lifespan contextual perspective and can be explained in terms of adaptation to particular life contexts. For example, research exploring such social cognitive constructs as possible selves (one’s hopes and fears for the future) indicates that they change throughout the latter half of the lifespan (Hooker 1999). For example, health-related selves achieve greater importance in older adulthood and relate to adaptive self-regulatory health behaviors.

This is most evident in areas such as wisdom, practical and social problem-solving, and postformal reasoning. For example, Staudinger et al. (1992) argue that wisdom involves an expert body of knowledge and strategies related to life composition and life insight. These strategies are used to produce adaptive outcomes in managing and composing one’s life. Examples of such knowledge and strategies include the ability to select appropriate abilities and strategies, compensate for declining abilities, and optimize one’s performance, e.g., as in increased flexibility in coping behavior. Similarly, Turk-Charles and Carstensen’s (1999) work suggests that changes in the relative importance of social cognitive goals across the lifespan profoundly influence the interpretation of social information and the selection and maintenance of intimate relationships. In this latter case, important new variables affecting social information processing emerge. Carstensen and co-workers argue that perception of time is responsible for this change in social motivation. By considering such changes, age-related decreases in social interaction can be recast in terms of its adaptive significance.

In another domain, Dixon (1999) examines cognition in social collaborative contexts. The primary thrust of this work examines age differences in the benefits or costs of collaboration in cognitive performance (e.g., memory, problem solving). He argues that collaborative cognitive functioning characterizes another aspect of social competence. Finally, we cannot ignore the negative role that social situational factors can play in the social cognitive functioning of older adults. This is reflected in the work on social stereotypes and aging. A number of researchers have examined adult developmental changes in the content and structure of stereotypes (e.g., Hummert 1999). For example, Hummert finds that older and young adults hold quite similar age stereotypes. However, she and other researchers find that older persons have more complex representations of the category ‘older adult’ as opposed to young adults who, in addition, hold more negative representations. However, unlike the social cognitive research reviewed above, these studies primarily look at age differences in the content of stereotypes. The explicit social cognitive mechanisms that account for these differences are not revealed clearly.

Relative to the knowledge-based framework discussed above, the content of social knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs such as stereotypes is important. However, the content must be accessed or activated in order to influence behavior. An important question is how does stereotype activation encourage or discourage the individual to be a more effective information processor? With respect to older adults, how do the stereotypes of aging provide expectations of mental deficiencies? In her research Levy (1996) suggests that such automatically activated (that is subliminally primed) stereotypes about aging and memory adversely affect the cognitive performance of older adults. This is, of course, a provocative finding and in need of replication. However, the point here is that it provokes issues for further research. The issue of directly manipulating threatening and/or facilitative and nonfacilitative social contexts is only beginning to undergo examination.

5. Future Directions

In conclusion, the social cognition and aging research highlights the importance of considering social factors in explanations of social cognitive functioning. Such factors as the communicative context, social beliefs and values, cognitive style, stereotypes, motivational goals, among others influence social information processing in important ways. Thus, it is important not to limit explanations of social cognitive change to cognitive processing variables. There are important social factors influencing how and when older adults will attend to specific information and when this information will influence social cognitive functioning.

However, current research in social cognition and aging has only begun to address important questions regarding older adults’ social cognitive functioning. In order to understand more fully the role and interplay of social cognitive structures and mechanisms in social cognition and aging, more research is needed. For example, are there qualitative changes in underlying mechanisms influencing social cognitive functioning? Age differences in the nature of social beliefs, values, and goals activated in social reasoning need to be explored. How and under what conditions do age differences in the content and activation of social knowledge and social belief systems account for social information processing? Can factors that influence variability as to when social judgment biases occur in young adults account for age-related variability? Under what conditions does working memory load compromise social information processing and under what conditions is it irrelevant? We can be optimistic in the growth of the social cognitive approach in research on aging. Although many of the cognitive and socio-emotional aspects of behavior and aging have been addressed, we have only begun to scratch the surface.


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