Publication Date

Fall 2020

Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

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

Degree Program

Department of Psychological Sciences

Degree Type

Master of Science


In this study we investigated how aging affects attention to predictive and uncertain cues during associative learning. According to Mackintosh’s theory of predictiveness (1975), attention will be allocated to cues that most reliably predict an outcome. An opposing theory of uncertainty from Pearce and Hall (1980) suggest attention will be allocated to cues whose outcomes are uncertain. Although these theories are contradictory, both are well supported in the associative learning literature. There is evidence that young and older adults give more attention to cues that are predictive compared to nonpredictive cues (Mutter et al., 2019), and that young adults respond faster to cues with certain outcomes compared to cues with uncertain outcomes (Luque et al., 2017). However, previous research has not examined the effects of these two types of attention in the same experiment with older adults. In this study, . a category learning task that assessed the accuracy of outcome responses alternated with a dot probe task that assessed attention to cues. Young and older adult participants were presented with pairs of cues and had to learn which one of two categories each pair of cues was associated with. The predictive cue within a compound provided reliable information about what category that particular compound belonged to, whereas the nonpredictive cue did not provide any useful information about category membership. In the last stage of learning, one compound cue maintained its relationship with the outcome it was previously associated with, while the other compound cue was associated with the previously learned outcome two-thirds of the time and was associated with the other category the remaining one-third of the time. We found that both young and older adults reponded faster to a predictive cue compared to a nonpredictive cue. In addition, both young and older adults were slower in responding to an uncertain cue pair compared to a certain cue pair. These results replicated previous findings (Luque et al., 2017; Mutter et al., 2019) and extended them to older adults. The novel findings of no age differences in attention to predictive and uncertain cues suggest that older adults do not experience an attentional deficit in associative learning. Future research including tests of associability will provide more information on how cue predictiveness and uncertainty effects subsequent learning in older adults.


Cognitive Psychology | Developmental Psychology | Psychology