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Everyday Problem Solving

Life-span Approach To Everyday Problem Solving

A life-span approach to the study of everyday problem solving encompasses four tenets: (1) examination of age-related change in everyday problem-solving performance from young to later adulthood; (2) consideration of the importance of individual differences in everyday cognition; (3) adoption of a multidimensional approach both to basic mental abilities and practical intelligence; and (4) examination of the association between traditional academic models of intelligence and everyday cognition.

Individual difference and age-related change in everyday cognition. A major concern in a life-span approach is the trajectory of change in everyday cognition as individuals age. That is, does the level of everyday problem-solving performance vary between individuals of different age cohorts, and does an individual's performance change as he or she becomes older? Cross-sectional and longitudinal research suggest that older adults perform more poorly on everyday cognitive tasks than young adults and middle-aged adults. Longitudinal research indicates that declines in everyday cognition are relatively modest from the sixties to the seventies, but a much steeper decline is shown in the late seventies to eighties.

Level of performance on everyday cognitive tasks is related to individual variables such as education, gender, and, in particular, a person's experience and expertise in a particular domain of daily living. For example, adults have shown greater expertise in everyday cognitive tasks related to their work lives or leisure pursuits.

In addition to age and task type, education also appears to play a role in everyday cognitive competence. Older adults suffer in comparison with younger cohorts in both the level of education attained and the quality of education. Possessing sufficient education may be particularly influential in the maintenance of everyday competence, as elders with less education tend to perform more poorly on everyday cognitive tasks throughout later adulthood. Figure 1 shows the Figure 1 Proportion of everyday problem items answered correctly; nondemented elderly by education level SOURCE: Author proportion of everyday cognitive problems answered correctly by older adults, stratified by age and educational level. Note that the old-old (adults age seventy-five and older) and those with less than twelve years of education are particularly disadvantaged on everyday cognitive tasks. As normative cognitive changes occur with age, elders, especially those who are cognitively challenged and possess less formal education, may be at increased risk for declining competence on everyday tasks requiring cognitive complexity.

Multidimensionality and relationship to cognitive ability. A life-span approach also stresses the importance of examining multiple dimensions or facets of everyday cognitive competence, as well as of traditional intelligence. Multidimensionality is of concern in two respects. First, there are likely to be multiple domains of everyday cognition that are only minimally related to each other and may exhibit different trajectories of age-related decline. Marsiske and Willis (1995) found, for example, that adults' performance on three measures of everyday problem solving was relatively unrelated, suggesting that distinct dimensions of practical intelligence exist. For example, practical problem solving in this study involved tasks in which (1) respondents were required to generate as many efficacious solutions as possible to problems encountered in everyday life (e.g., getting the lawn mowed while having a heart condition); (2) document literacy was assessed by ability to generate a single correct solution in response to questions about presented stimuli from everyday life, such as a train schedule or rebate form; and (3) respondents' chosen solutions to social dilemma vignettes were compared to those of experienced raters.

Second, since everyday tasks are cognitively complex, multiple basic mental abilities underlie, or predict, performance on an everyday task such as reading a medicine label or interpreting a transportation schedule. The specific basic abilities that underlie a task will vary across tasks. A hierarchical relationship between traditional conceptions of intellectual abilities and everyday cognition has been suggested in which performance of cognitively complex everyday activities depends upon several basic cognitive abilities, such as the ability to reason and solve novel and abstract problems (fluid intellectual abilities) as well as knowledge acquired through education and culture (crystallized abilities). Indeed, evidence indicates basic abilities such as reasoning, vocabulary, numerical skills, and spatial orientation underlie the performance of older adults' everyday activities. It has been proposed that basic cognitive abilities (i.e., fluid and crystallized intelligence) are genotypically invariant across cultures and, although their phenotypic manifestation may vary by culture, they are a requisite, but not sufficient, component of competence on tasks of everyday life.

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