Older Adults May Be Less Likely to Notice Their Mistakes

A new study suggests that as we get older, we become much less likely to notice our mistakes.

The study involved a simple, computerized test designed to determine how readily both younger and older adults were able to detect when they’d made an error.

Although the older adults performed just as well as the younger adults in the actual experiment, the younger adults more readily recognized when they had made a mistake — and remained more open to the possibility that they may have unknowingly erred. The older adults, however, were less likely to recognize their own mistakes and more likely to be certain in their answers.

“The good news is older adults perform the tasks we assigned them just as well as younger adults, albeit more slowly,” said Dr. Jan Wessel, assistant professor in the University of Iowa (UI) Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the study’s corresponding author. “But we find there is this impaired ability in older adults to recognize an error when they’ve made one.”

The study offers new insights into how older people perceive their decisions, and especially how they view their performance; whether judging their own ability to drive or how regularly they believe they’ve taken medications.

“Realizing fewer errors can have more severe consequences,” Wessel said, “because you can’t remedy an error that you don’t realize you’ve committed.”

For the study, the researchers recruited 38 younger adults (average age of 22) and 39 older adults (average age of 68) to participate in a series of tests that involved looking away from a circle appearing in a box on one side of a computer screen.

While the test was simple, younger adults couldn’t resist glancing at the circle before shifting their gaze about 20 percent of the time on average. That’s expected, Wessel said, as it’s human nature to focus on something new or unexpected, and the researchers wanted the participants to err.

After each “mistake,” the participants were asked whether they had made an error. They then were asked “how sure” and used a sliding scale from “unsure” to “very sure” to determine how confident they were about whether they had made a mistake in the test.

The findings show that the younger participants were correct 75 percent of the time when it came to acknowledging that they had erred. The older test-takers were correct 63 percent of the time when asked whether they had erred.

This means that in more than one in three instances, the older adults didn’t realize they had made a mistake. In addition, the older adults acted far more certain than the younger participants that they were correct.

“It shows when the younger adults thought they were correct, but in fact had made an error, they still had some inkling that they might have erred,” said Wessel, who is affiliated with the Department of Neurology and the Iowa Neuroscience Institute. “The older adults often have no idea at all that they were wrong.”

The researchers supported these observations by measuring how much participants’ pupils dilated during these experiments. In humans and most animals, pupils dilate when something unexpected occurs — triggered by surprise, fright, and other core emotions. It also happens when people think they’ve made a mistake.

The results show that the younger participants’ pupils dilated when they thought they had made a mistake. This effect was blunted when they made errors they did not recognize. In comparison, older adults showed a strong reduction of this pupil dilation after errors that they recognized and showed no dilation at all when they made a mistake they did not recognize.

“That mirrors what we see in the behavioral observations,” Wessel said, “that more often they don’t know when they’ve made an error.”

Source: University of Iowa



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