The Flexibility of Cognitive Control: Age Equivalence With Experience Guiding the Way

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Abstract

Prior research has shown that aging is accompanied by changes in cognitive control. Older adults are less effective in maintaining an attentional bias in favor of goal-relevant information and are less flexible in shifting control relative to younger adults. Using a novel variant of the Stroop color-naming task, we tested the hypothesis that age-related differences in the flexible shifting of control may be small or absent when control is guided by experience (i.e., environmental input guiding attention). Younger and older adults named the color of color words in abbreviated lists of trials. In Experiment 1, experience within the early segment of the list was manipulated to encourage adoption of more (mostly congruent condition) or less (mostly incongruent condition) attention toward the word. More important, the middle and late portions were 50% congruent in both conditions. Older adults, like younger adults, demonstrated flexible acquisition and shifting of control settings (i.e., relative attention to word vs. color information). In Experiment 2 we replicated this finding. Additionally, we found that both age groups flexibly acquired and shifted control settings for “transfer” items (i.e., items that were 50% congruent in all lists and list segments), pointing to a generalizable (i.e., global) form of control rather than an item-specific mechanism. Discussion focuses on the role of experience-guided control in enabling flexible performance in older adults.

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