Power of Positive Thinking in Older Adults

The power of positive thinking is a principle many older adults have heard about for most of their lives. Now cognitive aging researchers at the Beckman Institute have found that older adults with a positive belief that the cognitive effort they invest will pay off, a concept known as self-efficacy, can increase the benefit they get from cognitively enriching activities.

The power of positive thinking is a principle many older adults have heard about for most of their lives. Now cognitive aging researchers at the Beckman Institute have found that older adults with a positive belief that the cognitive effort they invest will pay off, a concept known as self-efficacy, can increase the benefit they get from cognitively enriching activities.

The paper reporting their research, Memory Self-Efficacy Predicts Responsiveness to Inductive Reasoning Training in Older Adults, by Elizabeth A. L. Stine-Morrow of the Human Perception and Performance group and the Department of Psychology, and lead author Brennan Payne from her Adult Learning Laboratory at Beckman, and their collaborators, appeared in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. Payne said that one of the major implications from the study is that older adults’ beliefs about their own cognitive abilities can influence not only how they allocate time and effort to new activities that can potentially improve cognition, but also how much they gain from these beneficial activities.   

“The literature has shown that a number of factors (including pre-existing health conditions, initial cognitive ability, and age) affect the degree to which older adults can gain from cognitive training interventions and other kinds of enriching activities,” Payne said. “However, this study is unique in presenting evidence that self-referential beliefs about the power of cognitive effort, beliefs that sometimes decline with age, are a distinct factor that can affect the degree to which older adults gain from cognitively enriching activities.”

In the paper, the researchers reported a study examining the relationship between self-efficacy beliefs held by older adults before starting a program of inductive reasoning training and how much their skills improved with the training.

They wrote that inductive reasoning is one of what are known as fluid mental abilities, such as working memory and speed of processing, that are often targeted for training in older adults because it is important in everyday life tasks. “Inductive reasoning,” they wrote, “the ability to infer general rules based on specific occurrences, has been known to be an indicator of fluid ability since as early as the 1920’s (Spearman, 1927). This is practically significant insofar as inductive reasoning has been shown to relate to the proficiency in executing tasks of everyday living among older adults.”

They also report on extensive literature showing the importance of self-efficacy in producing goal-based behaviors, such as adhering to an exercise regimen. For this study, 105 older adults from 60 to 94 years of age were assigned to either an inductive reasoning training program or a waitlist control group. The 16-week training program was one used in the ACTIVE (Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly) trials in which participants were trained to recognize novel patterns and use them to solve problems.   

The results of the study, they wrote, demonstrated that inductive reasoning “showed clear improvements in the treatment group compared to the control. Within the treatment group, initial memory capacity beliefs significantly predicted change in inductive reasoning such that those with higher levels of capacity beliefs showed greater responsiveness to the intervention.”

They added that the results “indicate that self-referential beliefs about cognitive potential may be an important personal resource in maintaining plasticity in adulthood” and that “older individuals with positive self-referential beliefs may benefit more from engagement in activities that provide opportunities for cognitive enrichment, such as the training intervention, thus increasing the likelihood for an optimal trajectory of cognitive aging.”