Journal of Adult Development

, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 1–9 | Cite as

Categorization Deficit in Old Age: Reality or Artefact?

  • Valérie PennequinEmail author
  • Roger Fontaine
  • Françoise Bonthoux
  • Nelly Scheuner
  • Agnès Blaye

When categorization behaviour is compared between young and elderly adults, results usually show a decrease in taxonomic choices along with an increase in thematic choices. This can be interpreted in two ways: a decline in the ability to perceive and use taxonomic relations, or a modification of conceptual preferences with aging related to a bias stemming from material which favours young adults. We evaluated the second hypothesis by studying whether the salience of categorical associations could explain the differences generally observed between young and elderly adults. This hypothesis was tested on 25 young subjects (M = 45.3 years, SD =5.6 years) and 30 elderly subjects (M = 71.5 years, SD = 7.1 years) using a matching task: individual judgments were used to build triads in which a target was presented along with a strong and a weak associate. In line with our hypothesis, both age groups were influenced by associative strength and type of relation in the same way. Results are interpreted with Baltes’s [1987, Developmental Psychology, 23, 611–626] model.


categorization taxonomic relations thematic relations aging. 


  1. Annett, M. (1959). The classification of instances of four common class concepts by children and adults. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 29(3), 223–236.Google Scholar
  2. Baltes, P. B. (1987). Theorical propositions of life-span developmental psychology : On the dynamics between growth and decline. Developmental Psychology, 23, 611–626.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baltes, P. B., Reese, H. W., & Lipsitt, L. P. (1980). Life-span developmental psychology. Annual Review of Psychology, 31, 65–110.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Cicirelli, V. G. (1976). Categorization behavior in aging subjects. Journal of Gerontology, 31(6), 676–680.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Collins, A. M., & Loftus, E. F. (1975). A spreading activation theory of semantic processing. Psychological Review, 82, 407–428.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Corson, Y. (1996). Effets de la nature des relations semantiques sur les processus d’activation entre amorces et cibles associativement liees./Effects of the nature of semantic relationships on the activation processes between primes and associatively linked targets. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 50, 243–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cramer, P., Eagle, M. (1972). Relationship between conditions of CRS presentation and the category of false recognition errors. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 94, 1–5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Deak, G., Bauer, P. J. (1995). The effects of task comprehension on preschoolers’ and adults’ categorization choices. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 60, 393–427.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Denney, N. W. (1974). Classification abilities in the elderly. Journal of Gerontology, 29(3), 309–314.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Denney, N. W., & Denney, D. R. (1974). Modeling effects on the questioning strategies of the elderly. Developmental Psychology, 10(3), 458.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Denney, N. W., & Lennon, M. L. (1972). Classification: a comparison of middle and old age. Developemental Psychology, 7(2), 210–213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Fontaine, R. (1999). Manuel de Psychologie du vieillissement. Paris: Dunod.Google Scholar
  13. Fontaine, R., & Toffart, L. (2000). Les prédicteurs des capacités de réserve cognitive chez la personne âgée. In D. Brouillet & A. Syssau (Eds.), Le vieillissement cognitif normal, DeBoeck, Bruxelles.Google Scholar
  14. Kogan, N. (1974). Categorizing and conceptualizing styles in younger and older adults. Human Development, 17, 218–230.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Krackow, E., Gordon, P. (1998). Are lions and tigers substitutes or associates? Evidence against slot filler accounts of children’s early categorization. Child Development, 69, 347–354.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Lathey, J. W. (1979). Free recall of nonretarded and EMR children: Associative and categorical bases of clustering. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 84, 96–99.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. La-Heij, W., Dirkx, J., & Kramer, P. (1990). Categorical interference and associative priming in picture naming. British Journal of Psychology, 81, 511–525.Google Scholar
  18. Lin, E. L., & Murphy, G. L. (2001). Thematic relations in adults’ concepts. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(1), 3–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Markman, E. (1989). Categorization and naming in children: Problems of induction. MIT PressGoogle Scholar
  20. Mathews, R. C., Maples, R. C., & Elkins, R. (1981). Semantic judgments as encoding operations in recall: The encoding of task-relevant and task-irrelevant semantic attributes of words. Journal of General Psychology, 105, 311–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. McCauley, C., Weil, C. M., & Sperber, R. D. (1976). The development of memory structure as reflected by semantic-priming effects. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 22, 511–518.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Nation, K., & Snowling, M. J. (1999). Developmental differences in sensitivity to semantic relations among good and poor comprehenders: Evidence from semantic priming. Cognition, 70, 1–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Nelson, K. (1983). The derivation of concepts and categories from events representations. In: E. K. Scholnick (Eds.). New trends in conceptual representations: Challenges to Piaget’s theory (pp. 129–149). Hillsdale (N. J.): Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  24. Olver, R. R., & Hornsby, J. R. (1966). On equivalence. In: J. S. Bruner, R. R. Olver, & P. M. Greenfield, (Eds.), Studies in cognitive growth. New-York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  25. Pennequin, V., & Fontaine, R. (2000). Training for older adults: The example of class inclusion, Journal of Adult Development, 2(2), 68–88.Google Scholar
  26. Rosch, E., Mervis, C. B., Gray, W. D., Johnson, D. M., & Boyes-Braem, P. (1976). Basic objects in natural categories. Cognitive Psychology, 8, 382–439.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Ross, B. H., & Murphy, G. L. (1999). Food for thought: Cross-classification and category organization in a complex real-world domain. Cognitive psychology, 38, 495–553.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Scheuner, N., Bonthoux, F., Cannard, C., & Blaye, A. (2001). Influence des associations spécifiques sur les choix d’appariements schématiques et taxonomiques à 4 et 6 ans. In A. Flieller, C. Bocéréan, J.-L. Kop, E. Thiébault, A.-M. Toniolo, & J. Tournois, (Eds.), Questions de psychologie différentielle (pp. 209–214). Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes.Google Scholar
  29. Scheuner, N., Bonthoux, F., Cannard, C., & Blaye, A. (2004). The role of associative strength and conceptual relations in matching tasks in 4- and 6-year-old children. International Journal of Psychology, 39, 290–304 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Siegler, R. S. (1997). Concepts and methods for studying cognitive change. In: E. Amsel, & K. A. Renninger, (Eds.), Change and Development. Issues of theory, method, and application (pp. 77–97). Mahwah (N. J.): L. Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  31. Sloutsky, V. M. (2003). The role of similarity in the development of categorization. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 246–251.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Smiley, S. S., & Brown, A. L. (1979). Conceptual preference for thematic or taxonomic relations: A nonmonotonic age trend from preschool to old age. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 28, 249–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Valérie Pennequin
    • 1
    • 4
    Email author
  • Roger Fontaine
    • 1
  • Françoise Bonthoux
    • 2
  • Nelly Scheuner
    • 2
  • Agnès Blaye
    • 3
  1. 1.Laboratory of Experimental Psychology, UPRES 2114 “Aging and adult development: cognition, rythmicity and adaptation”University of ToursTours Cedex 1France
  2. 2.Laboratory of Psychology and NeuroCognition, CNRS UMRUniversity of GrenobleGrenoble Cedex 9France
  3. 3.Center of Research in Psychology of Cognition, Language, and EmotionUniversity of ProvenceProvence CedexFrance
  4. 4.Département de Psychologie 3 rue des tanneursMaître de ConférencesTours cedex 1France

Personalised recommendations