Aging and the role of attention in associative learning.

In this study, we investigated whether age-related deficits in cue—outcome associative learning (e.g., Mutter, Atchley, & Plumlee, 2012; Mutter, DeCaro, & Plumlee, 2009; Mutter, Haggbloom, Plumlee, & Schirmer, 2006; Mutter & Williams, 2004) might be due to a decline in older adults’ ability to modulate attention to relevant and irrelevant cues. In the first 2 experiments, we used standard blocking and highlighting tasks to indirectly measure the ability to shift attention away from irrelevant stimuli toward relevant, predictive cues (e.g., Kruschke, Kappenman, & Hetrick, 2005). Although there were age differences in prediction accuracy, like young adults, older adults learned to shift attention toward predictive stimuli and ignore irrelevant or less predictive stimuli. This attentional effect was unrelated to either working memory or executive function suggesting that it did not involve voluntary control processes. The third experiment provided further support for this idea. We alternated a category learning task with a dot probe task to more directly assess the development of automatic attentional biases. There were again age differences in category prediction, but young and older adults alike responded more rapidly to the location of a dot probe cued by a stimulus experienced as predictive during the learning task than one cued by a stimulus experienced as nonpredictive. These findings provide converging evidence that even though cue—outcome prediction declines with age, the ability to modulate attention based on the predictive relevance of cues during associative learning remains intact. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved)