Based on the research discussed so far, it appears that processing resource limitations play an impor­tant role in understanding how older adults process and access social information. In fact, social cogni­tive researchers use information-processing models to describe how individuals make social judgments (e. g., Gilbert & Malone, 1995). For example, Gilbert and his colleagues have shown that the ability to make unbiased social judgments depends on the cognitive demand accompanying those judgments. In other words, we all make snap judgments, but then we reconsider and evaluate possible extenuat­ing circumstances to revise those initial judgments. This takes processing resources, and if we are busy thinking about something else we may not be able to revise our initial judgments.

As we will consider in more depth in the section on causal attributions later, Blanchard-Fields and col­leagues (Blanchard-Fields, 1999; Blanchard-Fields & Beatty, 2005) have found that older adults consis­tently hold to their initial judgments or conclusions of why negative events occur more often than do younger adults. They appear not to adjust their initial judgments by considering other factors, as Alexandra and Klaus were able to do when they revised their interpretation of their grandchildren’s behavior.

Because older adults typically exhibit lower lev­els of cognitive processing resources (see Salthouse, 1996, and Chapter 6), it is possible that this decline in resource capacity might impact social judgment processes. In the case of impression formation, older adults may have limited cognitive resources to process detailed information presented after the initial impres­sion is formed. Use of such information overworks processing resources. Similarly, source judgments and
selectively attending only to true information also places demands on one’s cognitive resources.

If indeed processing resource capacity is the major factor explaining social judgment biases, then it should affect all types of situations that older people encounter. However, it also may be that the extent to which social information is accessible operates independently of a processing resource limitation to influence social judgments. We will now examine the implications of this by consider­ing how social knowledge and beliefs and motiva­tion affect these types of social judgment biases. Before we can entertain the notion that knowledge influences social cognitive processing, we must first explore how social knowledge and beliefs develop and change as we grow older.

Concept Checks

1. How is impression formation affected by processing resource capacity?

2. How does knowledge accessibility influence age-related differences in social judgments?