Effect of Personal Relevance on Distractibility in Older Adults

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Title: Effect of Personal Relevance on Distractibility in Older Adults
Author: Germain, Cassandra Mallory
Advisors: Lynne Baker-Ward, Committee Member
Thomas M. Hess, Committee Chair
Slater Newman, Committee Member
Abstract: Within the social-cognitive framework, it has been suggested that typical patterns of age-differences in performance on laboratory tasks may in part be reflections of age-related variations in motivation or processing goals rather than age-related cognitive decline (Hess, 2000). In fact, several studies arising from this framework have shown that when motivational factors are sufficiently increased, older participants are more likely to engage cognitive resources and age-differences in performance are reduced (e.g., Hess, Waters & Rosenberg, 2001). Of particular interest to this study was whether motivational influences could also impact aging-related patterns of performance often attributed to a decrement in inhibitory processes and attention. The present study examined the impact of personal relevance on the ability to ignore distracting information within the context of a reading task. Thirty-six older adults (Mean Age = 71) and 36 younger (Mean Age = 18) were asked to read a series of passages that contained irrelevant, distracting information interspersed throughout the text. In an attempt to manipulate personal relevance, the subject matter of the passages was varied so that half of the passages reflected information considered highly relevant to older adults but not to younger adults, and half of the passages reflected information considered highly relevant to younger adults but not to older adults. It was hypothesized that the participants would perform better (i.e., faster reading speeds, and higher reading comprehension) on passages that were highly relevant to their age-group than on those of low relevance. It was also hypothesized that there would be greater memory for distracting information contained in passages of low relevance than those of high relevance, which would suggest that both older and younger participants are more likely to engage their cognitive resources thereby reducing the impact of distracting material when the passage material is personally meaningful in some way. Support for this hypothesis was obtained when reading times and comprehension scores were examined. Participants from both age-groups took longer to read passages of low relevance to their age group than passages of high relevance to their age group. This indicates that all participants were more affected by the distracting material while reading passages that were low in personal relevance than they were when reading high relevant passages, suggesting less task engagement in both older and younger adults in the former condition. Both younger and older adults also answered significantly more questions correctly on the passages that were highly relevant to their age group than on those that were of low relevance. In addition, participants recalled more of the distracting information when it was contained within the low relevant passages, although this effect only approached significance. The results of this study suggest that whereas observed age-differences in performance may be in part due to a decline in cognitive ability among older adults, motivational factors also play an important role. It appears that when motivation is high, participants engage in more control of attentional processes and age-related differences in distractibility are reduced; in contrast, when motivation is low, age-differences are greater. The results provide further support for the notion that with age, older adults tend to be increasingly selective in determining when to use cognitive resources (Baltes, 1990; Hess, 2001).
Date: 2003-07-21
Degree: MS
Discipline: Psychology
URI: http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/resolver/1840.16/873

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