• What is the negativity bias in impression formation, and how does it influence older adults’ thinking?

• Are there age differences in accessibility of social information?

• How does processing context influence social judgments?

• To what extent do processing capacity limitations influence social judgments in older adults?


lexandra and Klaus were taking care of their grandchildren for the weekend. They took them to the zoo for an outing. When they passed the gift shop, the children would not stop whining that they wanted a present. This frustrated Alexandra and Klaus, and they both tried to come up with an expla­nation for this distressing behavior. At first, they were worried because it seemed that the behavior of their grandchildren indicated that they were, in essence, selfish children. But on further reflection, they consid­ered other factors. The parents always bought the chil­dren a gift at the zoo, and so the children naturally expected it to happen again. The grandparents felt better about the situation after considering the par­ents’ role in it, and bought the gifts for the children.

In this situation, Alexandra and Klaus were mak­ing important social judgments. They carefully ana­lyzed the situation to try and understand their grandchildren’s behavior by focusing on all the fac­tors involved in it. Alexandra and Klaus show how we can correct our initial assessments of others if we take the time to reflect about all of the extenuat­ing circumstances. But what would have happened

282 CHAPTER 8 if they had not had the time to think about it, and instead had had multiple distractions such as deal­ing with the emotional outbursts of their grand­children as well as their own emotional reactions? Their judgments also could have been influenced by some very strong beliefs about how children should behave in a social situation such as this one. We will consider the influence of both of these factors on making social judgments: the role that is played by cognitive capacity, or by having enough time and making the effort to reflect on a situation, and social knowledge and beliefs. However, first let us explore the age differences in making social judgments.

Many laboratory studies have examined abstract cognitive skills and how they change as we get older (see Chapter 6). Like the everyday cognition research discussed in Chapter 7, an important question in social cognition research is: to what extent do the findings from the lab translate into understanding behavior in everyday contexts as people grow older? The social cognition perspective provides a way of examining how basic cognitive abilities operate in social situa­tions. The basic goal of the social cognition approach is to understand how people make sense of themselves, others, and events in everyday life (Fiske, 1993).

Impression Formation

In an intriguing set of studies, Hess and colleagues (Hess, 2006; Hess, Germain, Rosenberg, Leclerc, & Hodges, 2005; Hess, Osowski, & Leclerc, 2005) exam­ined age differences in social judgments by examining impression formation, or the way people form and revise first impressions. They examined how people use diagnostic trait information in making initial impressions of an individual and how this varies with age. To study this, one group of adults was first pre­sented with positive information about a person, such as evidence of honesty. They were then presented with negative information, including incidents of dishon­est behavior. Another group of adults was presented the information in reverse: first they were given a negative portrayal (dishonesty) and then were given incidents of positive behavior (e. g., honest behavior).

As you can see from Figure 8.1, Hess and Pullen (1994) found that all study participants modified their impressions. When new negative information was presented after the initial positive portrayal of the target, older adults were willing to modify their impression of the target from positive to negative. However, they were less willing to modify their first impression when the negative portrayal was followed by positive information. Younger adults did not show this pattern. Instead, they were more concerned with making sure the new information was consistent with their initial impression. To do so, they modified their impressions to correspond with the new information regardless of whether it was positive or negative.

Hess and Pullen suggest that older adults may rely more on life experiences and social rules of behavior when making their interpretations, whereas younger adults may be more concerned with situational consistency of the new information

© Will Hart / PhotoEdit

Older adults tend to hold onto first impressions longer when meeting new people.

presented. They also suggest that given older adults’ experience in life, older adults let their initial impres­sions stand because negative information was more striking to them and thus affected them more strongly. This is called a negativity bias. This bias corre­sponds well with other studies demonstrating that older adults pay attention to and seek out emo­tional information more than do younger people (Carstensen, 1995; Carstensen et al., 2003). We will discuss this further later in the chapter. This bias suggests that decline in cognitive functioning limits the ability of older adults to override the impact of their initial impressions.

Further evidence shows that the social judgments older adults make appear to be more sensitive to the diagnosticity of the information that is available (Hess, 2006). For example, if young adults receive new information about a person that contradicts their original impression, they are likely to adjust that initial impression. However, older adults are more selective in the information they choose to use in forming their judgments. They focus more on details that are most relevant to making those judgments and change their initial impression only if the new information is diagnostic, in other words, relevant and informative (Hess et al., 1999; Hess et al., 2005). It appears that for older adults to invest information­processing resources in making a judgment, they need to be invested in the social situation in which the judgment is made.

In some situations older adults may be at a dis­advantage when processing social information. For example, researchers have found that although younger and older adults can process social infor­mation similarly, older adults are at a disadvantage when the social context is cognitively demanding (Mutter, 2000; Ybarra & Park, 2002). A cognitively demanding situation would be similar to Alexandra and Klaus’s situation where they were trying to understand their grandchildren’s behavior under conditions of time pressure and multiple distrac­tions. Studies find that, indeed, when older adults take their time to make a social judgment, they process information similarly to younger adults and take into consideration all of the relevant informa­tion. However, when given a time limit, they have

Social Cognition 283

Source: A modified graph of the Hess, T. M., & Pullen, S. M. (1994). Adult age differences in impression change processes. Psychology and Aging 9, p. 239. Copyright © 1994 Reprinted with permission from the American Psychological Association.


difficulty remembering the information they need to make their social judgments (Ybarra & Park, 2002).

In the next section, we examine processes in­volved in accessing knowledge used to make social judgments.