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Older Adults Better At Correcting Quiz Errors

When it comes to learning new things, older adults don’t always lag behind younger people, according to new research.

The study, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, shows that older adults were actually better than young adults at correcting their mistakes on a general information quiz.

“The take home message is that there are some things that older adults can learn extremely well, even better than young adults. Correcting their factual errors—all of their errors—is one of them,” say psychological scientists Janet Metcalfe and David Friedman of Columbia University, who conducted the study. “There is such a negative stereotype about older adults’ cognitive abilities but our findings indicate that reality may not be as bleak as the stereotype implies.”

Metcalfe, Friedman, and colleagues were interested in exploring a phenomenon known as the “hypercorrection effect.” According to the effect, when people are very confident about an answer that turns out to be wrong, they tend to correct it; when they’re initially unsure about the answer, however, they’re less likely to correct it. Previous research has shown that the effect is robust in college students and children, but not as strong in older adults.

It’s possible that older adults don’t show a strong hypercorrection effect because they’re not very good at correcting so-called “high-confidence errors.” But it could also be that the effect doesn’t emerge for older adults because they’re actually better than young adults at correcting low-confidence errors.

The researchers wanted to put these possibilities to the test, using both behavioral measures and measures of brain activity to understand participants’ performance. They recruited 44 young adults (around 24 years old) and 45 older adults (around 74 years old) to participate in the study. None of the participants had any history or symptoms of neurological or psychiatric disorder or impairment.

The participants were fitted with an EEG cap and presented with a series of general information questions that covered a variety of topics (e.g., “In what ancient city were the Hanging Gardens located?”); they were encouraged to guess when they were unsure but they were allowed to say “I don’t know.” The participants were asked to rate how confident they were in their response on a 7-point scale, and were then given the correct answer (e.g., Babylon). The brain’s electrical activity was measured while the corrective feedback was displayed. This process continued until the participant had made errors on at least 20 high-confidence and 20 low-confidence answers—on average, this required about 244 questions for the older adults and about 230 questions for the younger adults.