Flipping the Narrative: Highlighting the Positive Aspects of Healthy Aging

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Psychological research on aging typically characterizes it as a period of decline. Numerous studies have reported age-related deficits in episodic memory, sensory perception, and fluid intelligence. These reports only add to society’s negative views of aging, which inevitably have a detrimental impact on older adults’ cognition, health, and general well-being. However, there are several other domains of cognition that remain stable or improve during healthy aging. For example, emotional functioning increases with age: older adults can better regulate their emotions and resist their desires compared to younger adults. Older adults are also more skilled at solving interpersonal problems and display intact implicit and procedural memory. This dissertation highlights two other areas that show improvement with age (i.e., decision making and knowledge) and considers how we can use these positive aspects to offset the negative aspects of aging. Chapter 2 investigates heuristic decision making. While some work suggests that older adults are more reliant on these shortcuts, there is little evidence to support this claim. To clarify this issue, participants from across the adult lifespan solved decision scenarios that tapped each of the following classic heuristics: anchoring, availability, recognition, representativeness, and sunk cost fallacy. Chapter 3 further explores knowledge. While the literature confirms that knowledge increases across the lifespan, it is unclear 1) if people are generally aware of this increase and 2) whether they hold expectations about the scope of younger vs. older adults' knowledge. To address these questions, younger and older participants predicted the knowledge of hypothetical younger and older adults. Chapter 4 focuses on application. While many studies have demonstrated that negative aging stereotypes negatively impact older adults’ memory performance, research on positive aging stereotypes’ influence is still inconclusive. In order to address this gap, older participants demonstrated their memory performance before and after viewing a neutral intervention or positive stereotype intervention about their knowledge advantage. Altogether, I find that older adults continue to use cognitively efficient decision strategies; they are not more reliant on classic heuristics and use them to the same degree as younger adults. Furthermore, I demonstrate that adults of all ages recognize that older individuals have a knowledge advantage over younger individuals, regardless of the difficulty of the information. Critically, if older adults are reminded of this advantage, they remember more words during a memory test. Taken together, this body of work sheds light on the cognitive improvements that accompany healthy aging and considers ways to leverage these positive aspects, with the goal of offsetting age-related deficits and promoting positive self-perceptions of aging.





Taylor, Morgan (2023). Flipping the Narrative: Highlighting the Positive Aspects of Healthy Aging. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/27673.


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