Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks

Think you’re too old to learn? No such luck.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology has found that, contrary to what has been shown before, trial-and-error learning still works on the elderly.

Research on learning tends to use word pair tests. Subjects are given a bunch of word pairs, such as “wet water”, are allowed to practice them in some way, and then researchers will say the first word of a pair to see if people can recall the second. A variation on the test uses lexical pairs rather than conceptual ones. So, you’d have “bu butchery” instead of “wet water”.

When it comes to conceptual pairs, eliciting mistakes can help people learn—after all, if you ask people to guess what word goes with “wet”, they’re bound to guess “water”. The same isn’t true of lexical pairs, and when digging into old experiments on learning and the elderly, researchers found that they’d been receiving more lexical tests than conceptual ones.

So, with that in mind, researchers had a group of thirty-two young people and a group of thirty-two old people (aged 72 on average) a conceptual memory test, and they gave two other groups of the same a lexical test. They found that trial-and-error learning, which is just guessing and making mistakes, give 10% fewer errors for conceptual learning and 10% more for lexical learning, regardless of age group. They also found that, while seniors did worse on the lexical learning tasks, they did just as well as the young groups on the conceptual learning ones.

So, as you march towards your next birthday, remember: you won’t stop making mistakes, but you also won’t stop learning from them.

Photo courtesy of flickr.

This is a test