Older adults are more likely to suffer a certain type of forgetfulness called “destination amnesia” than younger adults, a new study finds.
Confusingly, destination amnesia has little or nothing to do with physical destinations. Rather, it is characterized by falsely believing you've told someone something, such as believing you've told your daughter about needing a ride to an appointment, when you actually had told a neighbor.
It's the kind of memory faux pas that can lead to awkward or embarrassing social situations and miscommunication. And after making these memory errors, older adults remain highly confident in their false beliefs, the study concludes.
“Older adults are additionally highly confident, compared to younger adults, that they have never told people particular things when they actually had,” said lead investigator and cognitive scientist Nigel Gopie at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, Canada.. “This over-confidence presumably causes older adults to repeat information to people.”
The study is detailed online by the journal Psychology and Aging.
Why the errors? The ability to focus and pay attention declines with age, so older adults use up most of their attentional resources on the telling of information and don't properly encode the context (such as who they are speaking to) for later recall.
A critical finding in the study is that destination memory is more vulnerable to age-related decline than source memory, which is the ability to recall which person told you certain information.
In the research, 40 students from the University of Toronto (ages 18 – 30) and 40 healthy older adults from the community (ages 60 – 83) were divided into two experimental groups. The first experiment measured destination memory accuracy and confidence: requiring the individual to read out loud 50 interesting facts to 50 celebrities (whose faces appear on a computer screen), one at a time, and then remember which fact they told to which famous person. For example, “a dime has 118 ridges around it” and I told this fact to Oprah Winfrey.
The second experiment measured source memory accuracy and confidence: requiring the individual to remember which famous person told them a particular fact. For example, Tom Cruise told me that “the average person takes 12 minutes to fall asleep.”
In the first experiment for destination memory accuracy, older adults' performance was 21 percent worse than their younger counterparts.
In the second experiment for source memory accuracy, older and younger adults performed about the same (60 percent for young, 50 percent for old) in recollecting which famous face told them a particular fact.
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