Age Differences in Memory for Meaningful and Arbitrary Associations: A Memory Retrieval Account

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Abstract

Older adults typically show poor associative memory performance relative to younger adults. This age-related effect, however, is mediated by the meaningfulness of the materials used, such that age differences are minimized with the use of information that is consistent with prior knowledge. While this effect has been interpreted as facilitative learning through schematic support, the role of memory retrieval on this effect has yet to be explored. Using an associative memory paradigm that varied the extent of controlled retrieval for previously studied meaningful or arbitrary associations, older and younger adults in the present study retrieved realistic and unrealistic grocery item prices in a speeded, or in a slow, more control-based retrieval condition. There were no age differences in memory for realistic (meaningful) prices in either condition; however, younger adults showed better memory than older adults for unrealistic prices in the controlled retrieval condition only. These results suggest that age differences in memory for arbitrary associations can, at least partly, be accounted for by age reductions in strategic, controlled retrieval.

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