Objectives: Changes in motivational orientation across adulthood affect cognitive processes. The purpose of this research was to investigate if and how motivational incentives (gains or losses) affect prospective memory for intended actions in younger, middle-aged, and older adults.
Method: The consequences of memory hits and misses and the framing of the memory tasks were experimentally manipulated between participants: In a gain-framing condition, participants accumulated rewards, dependent on the proportion of target events to which they responded accurately. In a loss-framing condition, participants received an initial endowment from which losses were deducted, dependent on the proportion of targets they missed. We measured memory accuracy, perceived task importance, and ongoing-task performance.
Results: Gains and losses had different effects on memory across age groups: Age×Motivational Valence interactions emerged across 2 studies. Older adults showed relatively better memory performance to avoid losses than to achieve gains. Moreover, higher age was associated with lower memory performance (Study 1) and slower but more accurate decisions in an ongoing activity (Study 2).
Discussion: The findings reveal that motivational incentives and the framing of consequences as gains or losses moderate the relation between age and memory performance. Older adults' memory performance may benefit when messages encourage the avoidance of losses. This may also help to design age-tailored interventions in applied settings (e.g., health-related behavior).