Indexed on: 24 Jul '14Published on: 24 Jul '14Published in: Experimental aging research
BACKGROUND/STUDY CONTEXT: The study directly compared the learning performance of younger and older participants in two situations, one in which they had the possibility of detecting functional relations in the learning setting, and one in which they did not. Functional relations were defined as functional correspondences that could be established between abstract properties extracted from the sets of stimulus items and an abstract property extracted from the set of response items.A total of 112 adults (18-90 years old) had to learn to predict the values of a numerical variable (the criterion) on the basis of two words (a plant and an animal) as cues. Five plants and five animals were graded according to size. The plant × animal design was orthogonal. The values of the criterion were obtained using an additive, linear scheme under the functional relations condition, and using random associations under the zero relations condition.The hypothesis was well supported by the data. In the absence of functional relations, the difference between younger and older participants' performances was shown to be practically as great as it could be in the experimental situation that was chosen. When functional relations were present, age differences were significantly reduced, to the extent that the performance of the older participants was almost as good as that achieved by the younger group.The existence of functional relations in a learning setting considerably changes the pattern of differences between younger and older adults' performance. In both the absence and the presence of functional relations, older and younger participants spontaneously approached the learning task in a functional spirit, and conceived a priori the cues and the criterion as directly related. Future studies should examine the way in which participants approach learning tasks, and the characteristics of the tasks that determine participants' spontaneous learning attitudes.