There has been a recent focus in the social cognition and aging literature to examine cognition in social contexts, that is, how cognition works when we are interacting with others. This can be seen in work on the benefits and costs of collaborative cognition on cognitive performance (e. g., memory and problem solving) (Dixon, 1999; Meegan & Berg, 2002). Collaborative cognition occurs when two or more people work together to solve a cognitive task.
Current research shows that collaborative cognition enhances older adults’ performance on a variety of memory and problem-solving tasks (Meegan & Berg, 2002; Strough & Margrett, 2002), thus serving a very important adaptive function for older adults. Following the old saying “Two heads are better than one,” researchers are interested in examining how this type of collaborative context could mitigate deficits in memory that we typically see when assessing older adults in the laboratory (see Chapter 6). Research shows that older adults can collaborate on story recall as well as problem-solving performance and that their performance is better than the average performance of older adults in individual settings (Dixon, 1999; Dixon & Gould, 1998; Gould et al., 2002). In other words, cognitive performance improves with a collaborative context. On a recall task, by using a cognitive style together that minimizes working memory demands, older married couples performed just as well as younger couples. It is rare that you find older adults’ cognitive performance equal to that of younger adults.
Another way to look at the benefits of collaborative cognition is to examine how groups accomplish what they want to accomplish. What kinds of processes do older adults use to effectively remember an event as Brandon and Stephanie did? How do older adults divide up the cognitive work when they cooperate on a task? Older married couples produced more statements resulting from a shared discussion (Gould et al., 1994). Unacquainted older
308 CHAPTER 8 adult pairs produced more sociability or support statements. Sociability statements were about agreeing with the partner’s recall or comparing the story with events in their own lives. Thus older married couples know each other well and get right down to business. Older unacquainted couples are more concerned with being sociable to the other member of the dyad. Older married couples were experienced enough with one another to bypass the sociability concern and concentrate on better strategies to improve their performance. Overall, findings indicate that well-acquainted older couples demonstrate an expertise to develop an adaptive pattern of recalling information, which includes both social support issues and strategic efforts.
There is also growing evidence of the positive outcomes of collaboration when older adults tackle everyday problem-solving tasks such as errand running and planning a vacation (Berg et al., 2003; Margrett & Marsiske, 2002; Strough et al., 2003). Interestingly, older adults prefer to collaborate in their problem solving when they perceive deficiencies in their own functioning but prefer to work alone when they feel competent in the area (Strough et al., 2002). Collaborators of all ages report that the benefits include optimizing the decision, enhancing the relationship, and compensating for individual weaknesses (Berg et al., 2003). However, collaboration is not without its costs, such as selfishness, withholding of one’s honest opinion, and not meeting the other partner’s needs.