How To Think: Older People Can Teach Us All Something

What older people can teach youngsters (and all of us) about how to learn.

What older people can teach youngsters (and all of us) about how to learn.

Older people are better at correcting their mistakes on a general knowledge quiz, a new study finds.

It’s not just that seniors know more, it’s that they are better at correcting themselves when they initially get it wrong.

Indeed older people were better, on average, at learning the true answers regardless of how confident they were initially.

Perhaps with age we learn humility when it comes to memory.

Two of the study’s authors, Janet Metcalfe and David Friedman of Columbia University, said:

“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.

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.”

The researchers were inspired by a quirk in how we correct mistakes in our learning.

It turns out that when we’re really confident about an answer which we discover is wrong, we are more likely to correct it.

Called the ‘hypercorrection effect’, it probably stems from our motivation to be consistent.

In the study, around 500 older and younger people were given a series of general knowledge questions.

After answering, people said how confident they were about the answer.

What emerged was that older people were better at correcting the errors they’d made on low-confidence questions.

Younger people, though, were more likely to learn only from the wrong answers they were almost sure were correct.

Older people learned just as well from these as they did from the answers they were not confident about.

Brain scans during the tests revealed that it was down to the way older people paid attention.

Metcalfe and Friedman said:

“They care very much about the truth, they don’t want to make mistakes, and they recruit their attention to get it right.

To be sure, older adults should be heartened by our results–the older adults did splendidly in our study.

But we all grow old, so younger adults should be encouraged, too.”

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science (Metcalfe et al., 2015).

Man listening image from Shutterstock

Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.

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