Everyday Reasoning and Problem Solving
• What are the characteristics of older adults’ decision making?
• What are optimally exercised abilities and unexercised abilities? What age differences have been found in practical problem solving?
• What is encapsulation, and how does it relate to expertise? What is the role of experience in expertise?
• What is wisdom, and how does it relate to age and life experience?
im is a 75-year-old grandmother visiting her 14- year-old grandson. When he asks her to help with his algebra homework, she declines, stating that she just does not have enough schooling to understand it. However, when he has trouble communicating with his parents, Kim can give him excellent advice on how to understand things from both their perspective and his. He ends up getting what he wanted and is delighted to know that he can always go to his grandma for advice.
So far, our consideration of intellectual abilities has included examinations of how people’s performance on standardized tests and their modes of thinking differ with age. But what we have not
considered in detail yet is how people actually use their intellectual abilities and demonstrate characteristics we associate with intelligent people: solving problems, making decisions, gaining expertise, and becoming wise. This contrast in intellectual abilities is illustrated in Kim’s lack of algebraic skills, yet wisdom in her interpersonal skills and the conduct of life. What we have discovered in this chapter to this point is that people’s crystallized intelligence, reflecting life experience, continues to grow (or at least not decline) until later in life, and that one hallmark of adults’ thinking is the integration of emotion and logic. One might expect, then, that the ability to make decisions and solve real-life problems would not decline until late adulthood, that expertise would increase, and that wisdom would be related to age. Are these expectations correct? Let’s find out.
As we have discussed, there are many age-related declines in basic cognitive and sensory mechanisms (Chapter 6 and earlier in this chapter). We have also learned that there are age-related increases in experience and the pragmatics of knowledge (illustrated by wisdom and expertise, discussed later). Given these two perspectives on aging, an important distinction must be made. Although there are distinct age-related declines in the structure and processes of cognitive functioning, it is also important to consider the functional architecture of everyday behavior that is cognitively demanding. Thus, even though older adults may experience decline in memory, for example, they may have appropriate skills and knowledge adequate for tasks in their daily lives. In other words, we cannot necessarily take information we learn in laboratory experiments on cognitive and intellectual aging and easily apply it to everyday life. Let’s explore this distinction first in the area of everyday decision making.