Social Cognition: a book chapter summary

This Chapter looks at the way older adults are able to deal with what is happening around them, the social context based on their internal abilities in the form of cognitive abilities and personal control and their perceptions based on knowledge belief and goals.

Basic Cognitive Abilities and Social Cognition

Because older adults are experiencing a decline in their cognitive resources, there is a concern that it can affect the way they make decisions. Studies have shown that older adults are less likely to correct original negative impressions and use less detailed and specific information to make these impressions. Together these results suggest that there is a deficiency in working memory. Implicit theories are the concepts we use to determine how things should be based on our memory of previous situations. The ability to access this memory affects how people respond based on their implicit theory. However access is dependent on factors like strength of the memory. Age can restrict access to memory because older people do not have the cognitive processing ability. Additionally, the framing effect occurs when people’s perceptions of an event is influence by the way the situation is presented to them. This occurs in people of all age but has less of an effect on older people.

Social Knowledge Structures and Social Beliefs

Society develops expectations and constructs about how people are expected to behave contained in social scripts and stereotypes. Stereotypes about aging are both negative and positive with the more negative traits as impotence, forgetfulness and fragility. Positive traits include wisdom, generosity and responsibility. Stereotypes are important because they affect how we interpret information and sometimes treat people. It is not possible to prevent ourselves from activating stereotypical ideas because they can be subconscious. Perceptions that older people are experiencing reductions in competence make them vulnerable to age related double standards where there memory failures are perceived as more serious than younger peoples. Older people can also be subject to patronizing talk that denigrates their cognitive ability. People can perform poorly when they are exposed to a negative stereotype about their group while others receiver a performance boost from witnessing the stereotype. In addition to stereotypes, other factors can effect behavior. In general the content of belief, the strength of these beliefs and whether they are activated determine if and how much they influence behavior. There are cohort differences in the way that people have been socialized that affects their beliefs and attitudes on any given situation. In addition personal environment plays an additional role. These beliefs and attitudes are triggered when a person encounters a situation that relates to this conditioning. At the same time personal context such as age and marital status affect social beliefs.

Casual Attributions

In order to explain human behavior, causal attributions are used. They can be internal and person specific i.e. dispositional attributions or external to the person i.e. situational attributions. The way that peoples assign others behavior to either of these categories affects whether we view their behavior in more negative or positive ways. Studies show that younger people are more likely to assign dispositional attributions while older people as a result of their life experiences are generally more sensitive to situational attributions. Overall middle aged adults are most able to apply multiple explanations to behavior. Some studies suggest that older adults have very strong beliefs and are likely to apply these beliefs to make a judgment on issues such as guilt.

Motivation and Social Processing Goals

As people get older, emotional goals become more important in relation to their perceptions on whether time is limited or expansive. This manifests in increased attention and memory with respect to emotional content in their surroundings. Their focus on emotion has positive directionality as older people tend to focus less on the negative narratives about their experiences and more on the positive ones. This could be because they want to maximize their own positive experience and keep a pleasant mood. Emotional goal processing can also be seen in the context of the negative impression bias that older people have. Here, the negative emotional impressions became more important. The way that we attempt to solve problems is called our cognitive style. People differ according to their needs for closure and ability to tolerate situational ambiguity. This style is measured using the Need for Closure Scale and the Personal Need for Structure Scale. Higher needs for closure and structure results in a greater tendency for attribution biases, use of stereotypes and making spontaneous trait inferences. It is suggested that personality, motivation and cognitive processing ability interact to generate social judgments. Authoritarian adults tended to be more isolationist in their decision making, felt less supported in their decisions and had simpler world views whole. In contrast non authoritarian adults are more likely to engage with others and value their feedback. The authoritarian voice is seen as one direction that social cognitive aging can take.

Personal Control

Personal control is the degree that a person believes their own actions affect the situation. Higher personal control means a person bears greater responsibility while lower personal control means the opposite. Similarly, locus of control refers to who is responsible. Internal locus on control means that the person accepts responsibility and external locus means the belief that others are responsible. Studies show mixed effects of aging on locus of control with some showing no effect with others showing that older people are more likely to use internal locus than younger people and vice versa. This mixed effect can be explained the fact that personal control is complex and contains control over multiple domains that in which there can be variation when within individual domains.  It is suggests the control can be divided into primary and secondary domains in which the primary domain is aimed at changing the wider environment and secondary control is aimed at adjusting the self to the environment.

Social Situations and Social Competence

Older people use strategies to cope with failing memories. Collaborative cognition uses two or more people to complete a cognitive task such as remembering events or a list. There are mixed effects for this technique for while it can help prevent false individual older adults who worked alone remember more of the variables. Memory performance is also influenced by the social investment that the older person feels toward their recollections and narrations.

Points of interest and Concerns

The most interesting point for me in the chapter is the fact that the story telling quality of older adults are more rich and engaging when they seem to have some connection or investment in the younger generation. Until I read this chapter I was not aware that transmitting socio cultural information to the younger generation is actually something older adults still do in our modern times. Much of our information comes from the internet or textbooks. Older people are not typically seen as reliable or even valuable sources of information because of the rapid shifts that have occurred between their cohort and the current one. Even though they have accumulated much experience and knowledge, older people are sometimes stereotyped as telling stories that go on forever. These “back in my day” stories are endured by the younger cohort but not assimilated as a knowledge source. However upon consideration, because of demographical sandwiching in which three generations are able to access each, these older adults are very invested in passing down what they have learned. It would make sense that the adults who want to share their experiences would make more effort to construct a more interesting story. It also shows that the human brain is geared toward stories with respect to both. Making them and receiving them.

The book suggests that an authoritarian approach to social judgments is merely a path that social aging can take without making a value judgment on whether or not this path is desirable or not. From my perspective I would query whether choosing this direction in social decisions would not lead to decreased happiness and greater isolation, both of which are not good for successful aging.

Summary of Chapter from the Following Book

Cavanaugh,J; Blanchard-Fields,F;Norris,. (2008). Adult Development and Aging. Scarborough, ON: Nelson.