How Senior Citizens Function So Well Despite
Declining Cognitive Ability
Can they really think well when they focus real hard?
Psychology prof says it is ‘selective engagement’
28, 2014 - Senior citizens almost universally show decline in their
cognitive ability as they age, but they often do not seem to suffer in
their ability to cope with decisions in their work or daily life. A
psychology researcher at North Carolina State University thinks it is
something he calls “selective engagement.”
A key to the puzzle appears to be how motivated
older adults are to maintain focus on cognitive tasks.
“My research team and I wanted to explain the
difference we see in cognitive performance in different settings,” says
Dr. Tom Hess, a professor of psychology at NC State and author of a
paper describing the theory.
“For example, laboratory tests almost universally
show that cognitive ability declines with age, so you would expect older
adults to perform worse in situations that rely on such abilities, such
as job performance – but you don’t. Why is that? That’s what this
theoretical framework attempts to address.”
has been developing this framework, called “selective engagement,” over
the past 10 years, based on years of work on the psychology of aging.
issue are cognitive performance and cognitive functioning. Both deal
with cognition, which is an individual’s ability to focus on complex
mental tasks, switch between tasks, tune out distractions and retain a
good working memory.
However, cognitive performance generally refers to
how people fare under test conditions, whereas cognitive functioning
usually refers to an individual’s ability to deal with mental tasks in
“There’s a body of work in psychology research indicating that
performing complex mental tasks is more taxing for older adults,” Hess
“This means older adults have to work harder to
perform these tasks. In addition, it takes older adults longer to
recover from this sort of exertion. As a result, I argue that older
adults have to make decisions about how to prioritize their efforts.”
is where selective engagement comes in. The idea behind the theory is
that older adults are more likely to fully commit their mental resources
to a task if they can identify with the task or consider it personally
meaningful. This would explain the disparity between cognitive
performance in experimental settings and cognitive functioning in the
first occurred to me when my research team saw that cognitive
performance seemed to be influenced by how we framed the tasks in our
experiments,” Hess says. “Tasks that people found personally relevant
garnered higher levels of cognitive performance than more abstract
next hopes to explore the extent to which selective engagement is
reflected in the daily life of older adults and the types of activities
they choose to engage in.
would not only further our understanding of cognition and aging, it may
also help researchers identify possible interventions to slow declines
in cognitive functioning,” Hess says.
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