Older People May Do Poorly on Cognitive Tests Partly Because They Don’t Care About the Tests

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Tom Hess, a University of North Carolina professor and author of a new study in Perspectives on Psychological Science, is trying to understand a strange finding: Even though older adults show declines when they are given tests of cognitive function, they often continue working (and living) at a high level that doesn’t appear to reflect much of a decline. What, then, aren’t the tests capturing, and why?

At issue, argues Hess in the study’s press release, is the difference between “cognitive performance,” which refers to performance “under test conditions,” and “cognitive functioning,” which “refers to an individual’s ability to deal with mental tasks in daily life”:

There’s a body of work in psychology research indicating that performing complex mental tasks is more taxing for older adults,” Hess says. “This means older adults have to work harder to perform these tasks. In addition, it takes older adults longer to recover from this sort of exertion. As a result, I argue that older adults have to make decisions about how to prioritize their efforts.”

This is where selective engagement comes in. The idea behind the theory is that older adults are more likely to fully commit their mental resources to a task if they can identify with the task or consider it personally meaningful. This would explain the disparity between cognitive performance in experimental settings and cognitive functioning in the real world.

Hess thinks that this could influence what sorts of activities older people engage in, and is hoping to test this theory in future work.

Part of what’s interesting here, beyond the finding itself, is how it serves as a microcosm for a lot of a social-science trickiness. So many findings are based on laboratory experiments, self-reporting, or other evidence that doesn’t come directly from real-world activity — often because it just isn’t easy to test the thing in question in a natural-experiment kind of way.

Why Older People Do Poorly on Cognitive Tests