Who were the investigators and what was the aim of the study? Fredda Blanchard-Fields, Heather Jahnke, and Cameron Camp (1995) were interested in the link between practical problem solving and post-formal thinking. This is especially true when problems that have an emotional aspect are examined. As they point out, most of the research on practical problem solving uses problems that have little emotional content in them. This may stack the deck against older adults, because of the connection between higher emotional intensity and demonstrating dialectical thinking (Kramer, 1990) and because they make more relativistic causal attributions in problem situations that are high in emotional salience (Blanchard-Fields & Norris,
1994) . Age differences in problem-solving styles tend to be absent on problems low in emotional salience; however, on problems high in emotional salience, older adults showed more awareness of when to avoid or passively accept a situation within interpersonal, emotional domains, whereas younger adults tended to use a cognitive-analytic approach to all problems (Blanchard-Fields & Camp, 1990). What would happen if the emotional salience of problems were carefully manipulated? Would it influence people’s preferred mode of problem solving?
How did the investigators measure the topic of interest? Participants were given a total of 15 problem situations, with five rated in each of three categories as high (such as caring for an ill or aging parent), medium (such as moving to a new town), or low (such as returning defective merchandise) in emotional salience. Each solution was rated as reflecting one of four problem-solving styles: problem-focused action, involving overt behaviors that deal directly with the problem; cognitive problem analysis, involving cognitive efforts to solve the problem by thinking it through; passive-dependent behavior, involving attempts to withdraw from the situation in some way; and avoidant thinking and denial, involving attempts to manage the meaning of the problem.
Who were the participants in this study? Blanchard-Fields et al. studied 70 adolescents (aged 14 to 17), 69 young adults (aged 25 to 35), 74 middle-aged adults (aged 45 to 55), and 74 older adults (aged 65 to 75).
What was the design of the study? The study was a cross-sectional examination of age differences in adults’ problem-solving strategies.
Were there ethical concerns with the study? Because the study used volunteers and received parental permission for adolescents and the tasks contained no questions about sensitive topics, there were no ethical concerns.
What were the results?
Results showed that emotional salience has a clear effect on the problem-solving approaches people of different ages adopt. No age differences were found in relation to problem-focused strategies; they were found in all age groups with all types of problems. However, these strategies decreased as the emotional salience of the problem increased. In fact, passive-dependent and cognitive-analysis strategies increased with greater emotional salience of the problems. Younger adults preferred cognitive-analysis strategies in comparison with any other age group, which fits with their tendency to adopt formal operational or absolutist thinking. Although all age groups adopted avoidant-denial strategies as their second most preferred choice, older adults were especially likely to adopt this approach. Similarly, older adults used passive-dependent strategies more than younger adults in situations with high emotional saliency.
The tendencies of younger adults to use cognitive-analysis strategies and for older adults
to use more avoidant-denial and passive-dependent strategies may reflect a combination of cognitive level and life experience.
In sum, the degree to which emotionality is part of a problem, in conjunction with life experience and preferred modes of thinking, appears to influence the way one attempts to deal with the problem. One limitation of the Blanchard-Fields et al. study was the fact that the problems they used represented hypothetical situations. In a more current study, Blanchard-Fields et al. (2004) replicated these age differences in problem situations that participants actually faced.
The most popular answer is that older adults compensate for poorer performance through their expertise. That is, through years of experience and practice, adults build up a wealth of knowledge about alternative ways to solve problems or make decisions that enables them to bypass steps needed by younger adults (Ericsson & Charness, 1994). In a way, this represents “the triumph of knowledge over reasoning” (Bosman & Charness, 1996); experience and age can defeat skill and youth. In research terms, older people are sometimes able to compensate for declines in some basic intellectual abilities (e. g., the information-processing skills underlying fluid abilities).
Figuring out exactly what expertise is turns out to be difficult. Charness and Bosman (1990) point out that experts are identified at times because they use novel approaches to solve difficult problems, because they have extensive knowledge about a particular topic, or because they are highly practiced. For example, expert physicians diagnose diseases differently from novice physicians (Patel & Groen, 1986), chess masters quickly evaluate very complex board positions (Charness & Bosman, 1990), and typists look ahead to help avoid mistakes (see Chapter 5).
What research has been conducted on age differences in expertise? Within a specified domain, expert performance tends to hold up as we grow older, with only slight declines in older age groups (Charness & Bosman, 1990; Kramer & Willis, 2002; Morrow et al., 2001). The important issue here is whether this increase in expertise makes up for losses in fluid intelligence. The results are encouraging in that acquired knowledge (i. e., expertise) helps the aging adult compensate for losses in other skills