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Older people veer off-topic in conversation more frequently than younger ones

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Posted September 27, 2018

It happens to everyone. You are talking to someone and just for a second you lose concentration and start veering off topic. Sometimes it is really hard to keep the conversation on track when people do not seem to be interested. However, for some it happens more often that to others. Scientists from the University of Edinburgh found that older people are not as skilled as younger people at keeping a conversation on track.

Old people have more knowledge, but are less skilled at selecting more relevant pieces of it. Image credit: rudyanderson via Wikimedia

Scientists gathered a group of 60 people, ranging in age from 18 to more than 80 years old. Then they collected 840 speech samples from the group and used a series of computerised tests to analyse them. Two major tests were used to assess these samples: the first one measures the ability to choose relevant information and another was used to quantify knowledge. Methodology of these experiments was rather simple, but it allowed confirming that people are more likely to deviate off topic during conversation the older they become.

In the first experiment participants were given a series of subjects to speak about for one minute. Scientists carefully analysed how likely each participant was to present irrelevant information, how coherent he was. Then participants had to take a series of tests, measuring their thinking skills. For example, one test was measuring how knowledgeable participants were and assessed their vocabulary. Another test was used to see how well participants can use their knowledge in practice. For example, they were asked to match familiar objects based on their colour. And so, scientists found that older people in general are not as good at staying at topic as younger ones. Interestingly, people will less coherent speech actually had more knowledge, but were less good selecting the most relevant pieces of it.

Some previous studies had shown that older people are less coherent in conversations, but no one quite understood why. Lead researcher Paul Hoffman said: “Here we found older people are more knowledgeable than young people but are less skilled at selecting which aspects of their knowledge are most important. We all get distracted by irrelevant thoughts from time to time when we’re speaking, but our results suggest that this happens more often as we get older and accumulate more knowledge”.

People have made jokes about old people sharing irrelevant information for quite some time, but scientists didn’t really look into it. Now we would like to know the mechanism behind this phenomenon. Is it just brain getting old and weak? Or maybe the reasons are purely psychological?

 

Source: University of Edinburgh

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