Publication Date

Fall 2015

Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Sharon Mutter (Director), Andrew Mienaltowski, and Matthew Shake

Degree Program

Department of Psychological Sciences

Degree Type

Master of Science


The ability to make associations between causal cues and outcomes is an important adaptive trait that allows us to properly prepare for an upcoming event. Encoding context is a type of associative processing; thus, context is also an important aspect of acquiring causal relationships. Context gives us additional information about how two events are related and allows us to be flexible in how we respond to causal cues. Research indicates that older adults exhibit an associative deficit as well as a deficit in contextual processing; therefore, it seems likely that these deficits are responsible for the deficit in older adults’ causal learning. The purpose of the current study was to more directly test how associative deficits related to older adults’ contextual processing affect their causal learning. Based on past research, it was hypothesized that older adults would be less likely than younger adults to acquire and use contextual information in causal learning. A causal learning scenario from Boddez, Baeyens, Hermans, and Beckers (2011) was used to test the hypothesis that older adults show deficits in contextual processing in a causal learning scenario. This task examined contextual processing using blocking and extinction. Participants went through eight blocks of trials in which they were exposed to various cues and outcomes. They provided expectancy ratings that indicated how likely they believed an outcome was to occur, and these ratings were used to assess age differences in use of contextual information in a causal learning scenario. As expected, both younger and older adults demonstrated blocking in that they assigned higher causal value to a previously trained target cue (A+) than to another cue (X) that was only presented in compound with cue A later in the task (i.e., AX+). Additionally, when tested in the context where the association was originally learned following extinction training (i.e., A-), the causal value of cue A decreased for all groups, even if extinction training took place in a different context. However, ratings for cue A decreased even more for younger adults whose extinction training took place in a different context when tested in their extinction context.


Biological Psychology | Cognition and Perception