The research on social cognition and aging further accentuates why it is important to consider social fac­tors to explain cognitive functioning in older adult­hood. Factors such as the social context in which we communicate, the emotions we are feeling, and the strength of our beliefs and values drive our deci­sions and social judgments in important ways. Thus it is important not to limit explanations of changes in thinking and decision making to cognitive processing variables. Important social factors influence how and when an individual will attend to specific information and when this information will influence social cog­nitive functioning. These factors include those we have discussed earlier: motivational goals, cognitive style, attitudes, and values, among others. By not considering these factors, we run the risk of under­estimating the competence of older adults. By con­sidering these factors we can explore the conditions under which older adults flourish and the conditions where we need to focus aid and attention. This has important policy implications with respect to how we treat older adults in the workforce, establishing health policies, and enhancing the treatment of our older adult population. We can be very optimistic about the future promise of research on aging and social cogni­tion for identifying and probing such important so­cial components of information processing. In sum, by looking at cognition in a social context, we get a more complete picture of how cognition operates in an everyday social environment.


8.1 Social Judgment Processes

What is the negativity bias in impression

formation, and how does it influence older

adults’ thinking?

• When forming an initial impression, older adults rely heavily on preexisting social structures.

• Older adults weigh negative information more heavily in their social judgments than do younger adults.

• Older adults use less detailed information in forming impressions than do younger adults.

Are there age differences in accessibility

of social information?

• Social knowledge structures must be available to guide behavior.


• Social information must be easily accessible to guide behavior.

• Accessibility depends on the strength of the information stored in memory.

• How the situation is framed influences what types of social knowledge will be accessed.

How does processing context influence social


• Age-related changes in processing capacity influence social judgments.

• Stages of processing suggest we make initial snap judgments and later correct or adjust them based on more reflective thinking.

To what extent do processing capacity

limitations influence social judgments in older


• Older adults tend to make more snap judgments because of processing resource limitations.

8.2 Social Knowledge Structures and Beliefs

What are social knowledge structures?

• To understand age differences in social beliefs, we must first examine content differences.

• Second, we must assess the strength of the beliefs.

• Third, we need to know the likelihood that beliefs will affect behavior.

What are social beliefs, and how do they change with age?

• Age differences in social beliefs can be attributed to generational differences and life-stage differences.

8.3 Social Judgments and Causal Attributions

How do causal attributions and the correspondence bias change with age?

• Older adults display a dispositional bias when confronted with negative relationship situations.

• Older adults display more interactive attributions in negative relationship situations.

What alternative explanations are there for the dispositional bias found in older adults?

• The dispositional bias on the part of older adults can be attributed to both processing resource limitations and differences in social knowledge that influence their attributional judgments.

• Older adults display a higher level of social expertise than younger adults do when forming impressions.

8.4 Motivation and Social Processing Goals

How do goals influence the way we process information, and how does this change with age?

• Life-span shifts in goal orientation show that interests shift toward physical health and socio-emotional domains increase with age.

How do emotions influence the way we process information, and how does this change with age?

• Older adults tend to focus their processing on positive emotional information more than negative information.

How does a need for closure influence the way we process information, and how does it change with age?

• Need for closure is a need for a quick and decisive answer with little tolerance for ambiguity.

• Older adults’ social judgment biases are predicted by the degree to which they need quick and decisive closure. This is not so for younger age groups.

8.5 Stereotypes and Aging

How does the content of stereotypes about aging differ across adulthood?

• The content of stereotypes varies by age: older adults include more positive stereotypes along with negative ones.

How do younger and older adults perceive the competence of the elderly?

• An age-based double standard operates when judging older adults’ failures in memory.

• Younger adults rate older adults as more responsible despite their memory failures.

How do negative stereotypes about aging unconsciously guide our behavior?

• Automatically activated negative stereotypes about aging guide behavior beyond the individual’s awareness.

• Implicit stereotyping influences the way we patronize older adults in our communications.

What are the ways the positive and negative aging stereotypes influence older adults’ behavior?

• Stereotypic beliefs have a negative impact on the cognitive performance of older adults.

• Stereotypic beliefs influence older adults’ health and physical behavior.

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8.6 Personal Control

What is personal control, and what age differences exist in this area?

• Personal control is the degree to which one believes that performance depends on something one does.

• Age differences in the degree of personal control depend on the domain being studied. Some evidence suggests that people develop several strategies concerning personal control to protect a positive self-image.

What is the multidimensionality of personal control?

• Older adults perceive less control over specific domains of functioning such as intellectual changes with aging.

• Perceived control over health remains stable until it declines in very old age.

• Older adults perceive less control over social issues and personal appearance.

How do assimilation and accommodation influence behavior?

• Assimilative strategies prevent losses important to self-esteem.

• Accommodative strategies readjust goals.

• Immunizing mechanisms alter the effects of self-discrepant information.

What is primary and secondary control?

• Primary control helps change the environment to match one’s goals.

• Secondary control reappraises the environment in light of one’s decline in functioning.

What is the primacy of primary control over secondary control?

• Primary control has functional primacy over secondary control.

• Cross-cultural perspectives challenge the notion of primacy of primary control.

8.7 Social Situations and Social Competence

What is the social facilitation of cognitive functioning?

• Particular types of social settings in which we communicate with others influence our cognitive processing.

What is collaborative cognition, and does it facilitate memory in older adults?

• Collaborating with others in recollection helps facilitate memory in older adults.

• Collaborating with others enhances problem solving in older adults

How does the social context influence memory performance in older adults?

• The social context can serve a facilitative function in older adults’ memory performance.

Review Questions

8.1 Social Judgment Processes

• What are the stages in attributional processing?

• What is the negativity bias, and what are the age differences in its impact?

• Describe the age differences in the extent to which trait information is used in forming an impression.

• How does processing capacity affect social cognitive processing?

• What influences the accessibility of social information?

• What is the status of processing resource limitations as an explanation for social judgment biases?

8.2 Social Knowledge Structures and Beliefs

• What three important factors need to be considered to understand implicit social beliefs?

• Describe evidence for age differences in the content of social beliefs.

8.3 Social Judgments and Causal Attributions

• What are causal attributions?

• What is a correspondence bias?

• Are there age differences in the correspondence bias? If so, under what conditions?

• What accounts for the age differences in the correspondence bias?

8.4 Motivation and Social Processing Goals

• How do personal goals influence behavior?

• To what extent are there age differences in emotion as a processing goal in social cognitive functioning?

• What is need for closure?

• How does need for closure influence the processing of social information?

• Are there age differences in the degree to which need for closure influences social information processing?

8.5 Stereotypes and Aging

• What are stereotypes?

• How is the content of stereotypes similar across age groups?

• How does the content of stereotypes differ across age groups?

• What is the age-based double standard of perceived competence in younger and older adults?

• What do older and younger adults perceive as the cause of memory failure in older individuals?

• How does perceived competence influence the way tasks are assigned to older and younger targets?

• What other factors besides competence are taken into consideration when judging older adults’ future performance?

• What evidence supports the notion that stereotypes can be automatically activated out of conscious awareness?

• What is implicit stereotyping?

• Under what conditions are stereotypes activated?

• How do negative stereotypes of aging influence young adults’ behavior?

8.6 Personal Control

• What evidence is there of age differences in personal control beliefs?

• In what domains do older adults exhibit low perceived control, and in what domains do they exhibit higher levels of perceived control?

• How are assimilative and accommodative strategies adaptive in older adults’ functioning?

• Why is primary control viewed as having more functional primacy than secondary control?

• What cross-cultural evidence challenges the notion of primary control as functionally more important?

• How does personal control influence older adults’ emotional well-being?

8.7 Social Situations and Social Competence

• What is collaborative cognition?

• What evidence suggests that collaborative cognition compensates for memory failures in older adults?

• How does collaborative cognition facilitate problem-solving behavior?

• How do marital relationships influence collaborative cognition?

• How does a storytelling context influence age differences in memory for stories?

• What does it mean to say that the social context facilitates cognitive performance?

Integrating Concepts in Development

• To what degree are declines in processing resource capacity discussed in Chapter 6 as ubiquitous in their effects on social cognitive processes?

• What relations can be found among dispositional traits, personal concerns, and life narratives?

• How does emotion as a processing goal relate to socio-emotional selectivity theory in Chapter 10?

• How does social cognition relate to post-formal thought (Chapter 7)?

• How does personal control relate to concepts such as memory self-efficacy discussed in Chapter 6?

Social Cognition 313

Key Terms

accommodations Readjustments of goals and aspirations as a way to lessen or neutralize the effects of negative self-evaluations in key domains. age-based double standard When an individual attributes an older person’s failure in memory as more serious than a memory failure observed in a young adult.

assimilative activities Exercises that prevent or alleviate losses in domains that are personally relevant for self-esteem and identity.

causal attributions Explanations people construct

to explain their behavior, which can be situational,

dispositional, or interactive.

cognitive style A traitlike pattern of behavior

one uses when approaching a problem-solving


collaborative cognition Cognitive performance that results from the interaction of two or more individuals.

control strategies Behavior patterns used to obtain a sense of control over how an outcome or desired goal will be achieved.

correspondence bias Relying more on dispositional information in explaining behavior and ignoring compelling situational information such as extenuating circumstances.

dispositional attribution An explanation for someone’s behavior that resides within the actor. immunizing mechanisms Control strategies that alter the effects of self-discrepant evidence. implicit stereotyping Stereotyped beliefs that affect your judgments of individuals without your being aware of it (i. e., the process is unconscious). impression formation The way in which people combine the components of another person’s personality and come up with an integrated perception of the person. negativity bias Weighing negative information more heavily than positive information in a social judgment.

patronizing talk Using superficial conversation, slowed speech, simple vocabulary, carefully articulated words, and a demeaning emotional tone.

personal control The belief that what one does has an influence on the outcome of an event. positivity effect The tendency to attend to and process positive information over negative information. primary control The act of bringing the environment into line with one’s own desires and goals, similar to Brandstadter’s assimilative activities. secondary control The act of bringing oneself in line with the environment, similar to Brandstadter’s accomodative activities.

situational attribution An explanation for someone’s behavior that is external to the actor. social knowledge A cognitive structure that represents one’s general knowledge about a given social concept or domain.

source judgments Process of accessing knowledge wherein one attempts to determine where one obtained a particular piece of information. stereotypes Beliefs about characteristics, attributes, and behaviors of members of certain groups. stereotype threat An evoked fear of being judged in accordance with a negative stereotype about a group to which an individual belongs.


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Visit the Book Companion Website where you will find tutorial quizzes, flashcards, and web links for every chapter, a final exam, and more! resources.


Baltes, P. B., & Staudinger, U. (1996). Interactive minds. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

A collection of chapters focusing on the area of collaborative cognition. Moderate to difficult reading. Hess, T. M., & Blanchard-Fields, F. (1999). Social cognition and aging. San Diego: Academic Press. An excellent collection of chapters discussing all aspects of social cognition covered in this chapter. Moderate to difficult reading.

Kunda, Z. (1999). Social cognition: Making sense of people. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. A comprehensive book covering all aspects of social cognition research. Easy to moderate reading.