The Influence of Social Context
on Memory Performance

Attention and Memory 211

Overall, both younger and older adults construct and update situation models similarly (Dijkstra et al., 2004; Radvansky et al., 2003; Zacks et al.,

2000) . For example, Morrow and colleagues (1997) had older and younger adults memorize a map of a building in which there were several rooms with different objects in each of the rooms. They then read a narrative about a character who was mov­ing from one room to another. The situation model consisted of a spatial organization centered on the main character and her location. When they inter­rupted the participants’ reading of the narratives and asked them whether certain objects were near or far from the main character’s current location, both younger and older adults gave answers that were more accurate and faster when the object was close to the main character. However, older adults took longer to memorize the maps and were slower overall in their reading times. Morrow and col­leagues (1997) concluded that although older and younger adults use qualitatively similar strategies to update their situation models, the updating process is more effortful for older adults.

How adults decide to retell a story is also impor­tant. Adams, Labouvie-Vief, Hobart, and Dorosz (1990) presented fables and nonfables to younger and older adults and examined their story recall styles. They found that older adults used a more integrative or interpretive style for nonfable pas­sages, whereas younger adults used a more literal or text-based style. Age differences were not found for the fable passages. These findings mean that younger adults may spontaneously shift their recall style depending on the type of passage, whereas older adults may use a more consistently integrative style regardless of passage type.

Another variable that affects performance is amount of prior knowledge or expertise. Miller (2003) compared time allocated to texts related to cooking versus general information in younger and older adults who either had high or low knowl­edge about cooking. High-knowledge individuals, whether they were younger or older, showed greater recall for the cooking texts. In other words, the ben­efits of knowledge were equal for both younger and older adults.

Finally, another variable affecting both higher and lower levels of text is the social context of remembering. Retelling information more typically occurs in a social context in everyday life. After we see a movie we retell its contents to our friends. Or we recount a story we have just read to a friend over the telephone. An interesting question posed by Cynthia Adams and colleagues (2002) is whether some contexts are more optimal for remembering for older adults than are others. In essence she finds that the social context matters and older adults’ retelling of stories varies depending upon who the listener is. We examine this finding in more detail in the How Do We Know feature.

The study by Adams and colleagues is a prime example of why we cannot study memory in a social and everyday vacuum. We must consider the multiple layers of context that influence memory functioning in older adults in everyday life. Being old does not necessarily mean that one cannot remember, especially if the situation provides an optimal opportunity to do so. This is where we turn our attention to next.

Concept Checks

1. How do age differences vary as a function of text-based and situation model levels of discourse processing?

2. How does the organization of text influence memory?

3. How do social factors influence memory for discourse?