Study offers new insights into things like how the elderly view their driving skills, or prescription compliance

If dealing with a parent sometimes leaves you exhausted, there is a bit of science behind it.

The older one gets, the less apt one may be to recognize one’s own error.

In a new study, University of Iowa researchers devised a simple, computerized test to gauge how readily young adults and older adults realize when they’ve made a mistake.

Older adults performed just as well as younger adults in tests involving looking away from an object appearing on the screen. But younger adults acknowledged more often than older adults when they failed to look away from the object. And, older adults were more likely to be adamant that they did not make a mistake.

“The good news is older adults perform the tasks we assigned them just as well as younger adults, albeit more slowly,” says Jan Wessel, assistant professor in the UI Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the study’s corresponding author. “But we find there is this impaired ability in older adults to recognize an error when they’ve made one.”

The research offers new insight how older people perceive their decisions, and especially how they view their performance–whether judging their own ability to drive or how regularly they believe they’ve taken medications.

“Realizing fewer errors can have more severe consequences. Because you can’t remedy an error that you don’t realize you’ve committed”

“Realizing fewer errors can have more severe consequences. Because you can’t remedy an error that you don’t realize you’ve committed,” Wessel says.

After each failed instance, the participants were asked whether they had made an error. They then were asked “how sure” and used a sliding scale from “unsure” to “very sure” to determine how confident they were about whether they had made a mistake in the test.

The younger participants were correct in acknowledging when they had erred 75 percent of the time. The older test-takers were correct 63 percent of the time when asked whether they had erred. That means in more than one-third of instances, the older participants didn’t realize they had made a mistake.

Even more, the younger participants who made an error on the test were far less certain than the older participants that they were correct. In other words, the younger adults hedged more.

“It shows when the younger adults thought they were correct, but in fact had made an error, they still had some inkling that they might have erred,” says Wessel, who is affiliated with the Department of Neurology and the Iowa Neuroscience Institute. “The older adults often have no idea at all that they were wrong.”

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