Age Differences in Suggestibility Following Semantic Illusions: The Role of Prior Knowledge
In the face of declines in memory related to specific events, people maintain intact general knowledge into very old age. Older adults often use this knowledge to support their remembering. Semantic illusions involve situations in which presented information contradicts correct knowledge; the illusion occurs when people fail to notice a contradiction with what they know. Compared to younger adults, older adults' later memories are surprisingly less affected by semantic illusions. That is, they use fewer errors seen in the semantic illusions as answers when later asked related general knowledge questions. Why do older adults show this reduced suggestibility, and what role does their intact knowledge play? In 5 experiments, I explored these questions. Older adults' reduced suggestibility was not due to an age difference in error detection: older adults were no better than younger adults at detecting the errors that contradicted their stored knowledge. In addition, episodic memory failures were not a major factor either; the evidence for their direct involvement was mixed. Instead, prior knowledge seems to have been particularly protective for older adults. They demonstrated more knowledge to begin with but also gained access to even more of their stored knowledge across the duration of experiments, leading them to be less suggestible following semantic illusions. There was also an indication that when knowledge was stably accessible, older adults had a tendency to rely on it more than did younger adults. Broadly, these findings indicate that older adults' intact prior knowledge provides important benefits to their remembering and can even protect them against acquiring erroneous information about the world.
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