Age-related increases in false recognition: The role of perceptual and conceptual similarity

Laura M Pidgeon, Alexa M Morcom

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Older adults (OAs) are more likely to falsely recognize novel events than young adults, and recent behavioral and neuroimaging evidence points to a reduced ability to distinguish overlapping information due to decline in hippocampal pattern separation. However, other data suggest a critical role for semantic similarity. Koutstaal et al. [(2003) false recognition of abstract vs. common objects in older and younger adults: testing the semantic categorization account, J. Exp. Psychol. Learn. 29, 499-510] reported that OAs were only vulnerable to false recognition of items with pre-existing semantic representations. We replicated Koutstaal et al.'s (2003) second experiment and examined the influence of independently rated perceptual and conceptual similarity between stimuli and lures. At study, young and OAs judged the pleasantness of pictures of abstract (unfamiliar) and concrete (familiar) items, followed by a surprise recognition test including studied items, similar lures, and novel unrelated items. Experiment 1 used dichotomous "old/new" responses at test, while in Experiment 2 participants were also asked to judge lures as "similar," to increase explicit demands on pattern separation. In both experiments, OAs showed a greater increase in false recognition for concrete than abstract items relative to the young, replicating Koutstaal et al.'s (2003) findings. However, unlike in the earlier study, there was also an age-related increase in false recognition of abstract lures when multiple similar images had been studied. In line with pattern separation accounts of false recognition, OAs were more likely to misclassify concrete lures with high and moderate, but not low degrees of rated similarity to studied items. Results are consistent with the view that OAs are particularly susceptible to semantic interference in recognition memory, and with the possibility that this reflects age-related decline in pattern separation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number283
JournalFrontiers in Aging Neuroscience
Early online date17 Oct 2014
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2014


  • cognitive aging
  • episodic memory
  • false recognition
  • pattern separation
  • gist
  • perceptual similarity
  • conceptual similarity


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