The study demonstrates a link between actual cognitive functioning and a low sense of control, and examines whether the relationship between control beliefs and memory performance varies for young, middle-aged, and older adults and whether using mnemonic strategies influences memory performance.
"One's sense of control is both a precursor and a consequence of age-related losses in memory," says lead author Margie Lachman, professor of psychology and director of the Lifespan Lab at Brandeis University. "Our study shows that the more you believe there are things you can do to remember information, the more likely you will be to use effort and adaptive strategies and to allocate resources effectively, and the less you will worry about forgetting."
Funded by the National Institute on Aging, the study involved 335 adults, ages 21 to 83, who were asked to recall a list of 30 categorizable words, such as types of fruit and flowers. Middle-aged and older adults who perceived greater control over cognitive functioning were more likely to categorize the words and had better recall performance, Lachman notes.
"It's no surprise that age-related losses or lapses in memory can challenge our deeply embedded sense of control," says Lachman. "Thus, we find an increase with age in beliefs that memory declines are an inevitable, irreversible, and uncontrollable part of the aging process. These beliefs are detrimental because they are associated with distress, anxiety, and giving up without expending the effort or strategies needed to support memory."
In fact, even young people have problems with memory performance, though they typically chalk it up to distraction or other external factors. In contrast, older adults are more likely to judge their forgetfulness an inevitable fact of aging or even a warning sign of Alzheimer's disease, leading to anxiety and despair.
Those who don't use adaptive strategies for remembering often have the expectation that there is nothing they can do to improve memory. The study's results suggest that interventions that target conceptions of control over memory could be effective for improving strategy use and enhancing memory in middle and later adulthood.