Can an Old Dog Learn New Tricks? By: Malyssa Starr

The question of older adults’ abilities to learn has been put into question countless times.  Whether being exaggerated in film or assumed by the public, to learn new tasks or information is not an ability older adults are presumed to have.  This is most evidently exaggerated in their skill with current technology.  Examples such as the movie The Intern, older adults are expected to use less technology and older models of the technology they do use.  There is a scene in which Ben, the main character and intern of Jules, the CEO of the company, lays out the materials of his brief case in contrast to a young intern emptying his backpack.  The contents of Ben’s briefcase, and the fact that he used a brief case, solidified the negative stereotypes of learning and adapting to new technology for older adults.  With this, I will explore the concept of learning for older adults and if it is indeed true that they cannot learn to the same capacity as the young.Computerkurs für Senioren

In a study conducted by Schwab et al., statistical learning was investigated to determine the differences in learning between young adults and older adults.  This kind of learning is essential in one’s ability to adapt to every aspect of their surroundings.  Past research done by Reeder et al., only looked at learning across the lifespan and did not take into account age differences.  Schwab et al., reran the study to include this factor and two age groups.  Twenty young and twenty old English-speaking, monolingual contributed to the research.  Each group was randomly assigned to one of two groups.  The group of young participants were enlisted using flyers posted around Georgetown University while the older adults were enlisted using newspaper advertisements.  In two experiments conducted, one tested recognition ratings while the other test grammaticality ratings.  It was hypothesized that, in both cases, older adults would do much poorer than their young counterparts (Schwab et al., 2016).

The results of the experiments were not completely as expected.  In both experiments, both the young and older adults learned the artificial language equally as well.  It was found, however, that the older adults were much less self-assured in their abilities to complete the work.  This is an example of a stereotype threat.  This is the concern of judgment with a negative stereotype about a personal attribute.  Stereotype threat has the potential to cause worse cognitive performances, such as memory (Burzynska, 2017).  Overall, the general findings were consistent with Reeder et al.. Beyond these findings, older adults were found to have the same results which shows they are able to partake in this kind of statistical learning.  On the other hand, the research also implied that the older adults learned less than the younger participants.  All in all, the research from this study showed that older adults, indeed, can learn and adapt to their surroundings just as well as the young (Schwab et al., 2016).  The confidence to do so is more of an explanation as to why some older adults seem to lack the ability to adapt rather than their actual physical ability.

On a different note, Yuhong, Koutstaal, and Twedell conducted various experiments to study visuospatial habitual attention.  An example of this is trying to find a single letter among many distractor letters.  Of the two experiments they conducted, experiment one seemed most adequate to describe the ability to learn in older adults.  There were sixteen participants between the age of eighteen to thirty and sixteen participants between the ages of sixty and eighty.  Their job was to search for a T that was among different increments of L distractors.  Once found, the participants pressed a button to describe the color which would have been a little green or red.  It was found that the pace and extent of learning was similar between the two age groups.  Two hundred trials were run and slowing was found in older adults.  However, their location probability learning was not phased (Yuhong, Koutstaal, & Twedell, 2016).  This study shows the persistence of older adults as well as their capacity to adapt to new objectives.  Along with the study done by Schwab et al., it was found that older adults have a similar capacity to learn as do the young.

Moreover, Radulescu, Daniel, and Niv studied the effects of rewards on learning in both young and older adults.  To do this, participants had to learn the different targets so to select the one with the highest worth to earn the most points possible.  Experiment one focused on the outcomes while experiment two explored strategies.  For topic sake, experiment one will be discussed.  In this experiment, thirty-three young adults and thirty-three older adults were enlisted into the study.  Overall, the older adults showed significantly slower speed when compared to the young participants.  Despite this, their accuracy and ability to learn which parts led to higher reward was not much different than their younger counterparts (Radulescu, Daniel, & Niv, 2016).  These findings further demonstrate the other studies in showing that although there is reduced speed, older adults have the same capacity to learn as do the young.  Specific to this study, they are motivated the same as younger participants.

Altogether, all previous studies mentioned share one plausible reason as to why older adults may do worse in learning than younger adults and that is memory self-efficacy (MSE).  This is the confidence one has in their abilities in memory.  This can be a part of stereotype threat as there exists a stereotype about older adults being forgetful and unable to adapt (Beaudoin & Desrichard, 2017).  In Beaudoin and Desrichard’s research, a survey was given to 364 different older adults evaluating their level of MSE, affective state, health state, self-perception, and meta-memory.  They were then given various cognitive evaluations that tested aspects of memory such as episodic memory.  The results showed better performance from those with higher MSE but worse recall performance.  It was also found that with increased age came decreased MSE.  Overall, MSE was determined to be significant on its’ effect of memory performance (Beaudoin & Desrichard, 2017).  This finding ties in all studies.  With age, self-assurance about one’s ability to complete a task may go down.  This can account for slower time and cause doubt in learning.  When one does not believe that they can accomplish something, the less likely they can do it.  Confidence is key in one’s ability to accomplish what they want to.

Lastly, the stereotype of older adults being unable to learn and adapt has been found to be mostly true.  Although each study cannot prove causation, it is a great start in debunking this stereotype.  Although aspects, such as stereotype threat, may play a role in an older adult’s ability to learn and adapt, it does not mean that they are unable to do so.  This research helps to point out that anyone can do what they put their mind to and just because society says that you should not be able to do something, does not mean that you cannot.


Beaudoin, M., & Desrichard, O. (2017). Memory self-efficacy and memory performance in older adults: The mediating role of task persistence. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 76(1), 23-33. doi:10.1024/1421-0185/a000188

Burzynska, A. (2017). Introduction to HDFS 312 [Powerpoint Slides].

Jiang, Y.V., Koutstaal, W., & Twedell, E.L. (2016). Habitual attention in older and young adults. Psychology and Aging, 31(8), 970-980. doi:10.1037/pag0000139

Radulescu, A., Daniel, R., & Niv, Y. (2016). The effects of aging on the interaction between reinforcement learning and attention. Psychology and Aging, 31(7), 747-757. doi:10.1037/pag0000112

Schwab, J.F., Schuler, K.D., Stillman, C.M., Newport, E.L., Howard, J.H., & Howard, D.V. (2016). Aging and the statistical learning of grammatical form classes. Psychology and Aging, 31(5), 481-487. doi:10.1037/pag0000110


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