Memory for Discourse
• What age differences are observed in text-based levels of memory for discourse?
• What age differences are observed for situation models of discourse memory?
• What social factors and characteristics of individuals influence memory for discourse?
n elderly woman, Dorothy, loves the movies. In fact, her adult children go to her for advice on good movies to see. She is able to recount in elabora – tive strokes what the movie was all about, what the moral of the story was, and how it relates to life in general. At the same time, she can never remember the specific details such as the type of car the heroine drove or the names of the actors and actresses. But her children love her recounting of the movies and are not dismayed by her lack of detail.
Typically, memory for structured materials that relate to prior knowledge is better than memory for information that is unfamiliar or is unstructured (Johnson, 2003; Zacks et al., 2000). The question is whether there are age differences in memory for structured information that relates to prior knowledge? This is most evident in memory for text or discourse.
Adults of all ages spend a great deal of time reading books, magazines, and newspapers, and watching television programs and movies, like Dorothy. Collectively, such material is termed discourse. Indeed, how well adults remember prose, or text passages, is one of the fastest-growing areas in memory research. In part, this rapid growth reflects the realization that prose (e. g., a newspaper story) is something people need to remember in everyday life; word lists typically are not.
In this section, we mainly focus on adults’ ability to remember information they have read. We examine the types of situations and conditions that put older adults at a disadvantage in remembering text and when older adults are at an advantage in remembering text. In order to do this, we look at researchers who have examined memory in terms of the different levels of linguistic structure in text. At a basic level, specific propositions or each of the basic ideas are represented in a text. In addition, propositions can be central to the story or relatively less important to the integrity of the story. For example, in a story about a burglary, the fact that the neighbor stole the woman’s purse is central to the story, and the fact that the purse was purple is less important. These propositions are considered text-based levels for processing (i. e., central or main ideas versus less important details).
A higher level of text representation is called a situation model. Unlike the propositions, which are text-based, at this level individuals use their world knowledge to construct a more global understanding of what the text is about (Wingfield & Stine-Morrow, 2000; Zwaan & Radvansky, 1998). For example, comprehension of the story about the burglary involves elaborating upon the story with several kinds of knowledge relevant to the situation, for example, damage done by the break-in, anger felt from this violation, and loss of priceless mementos. Let’s now look at age differences in remembering text at each of these two levels.