To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Prof. research cognitive abilities of older adult inventors

A new study co-written by Margie Lachman (PSYC) discusses new findings of how cognitive processes increase in age in experience-based knowledge and decrease in the ability to process novel information. The research builds off of previous research that found creative ability typically peaks during an individual’s mid-30s to early 40s.

Lachman’s research—with co-authors Mary Kaltenberg and Adam Jaffe—looks at the role of age-related cognitive abilities and the invention process. Collaboratively, the trio created a new database to assess the age of residing US inventors from patents, according to the study. The research also found that older inventors are more likely to use backward citations and originality measures versus younger inventors who typically use forward citations, number of claims and generality measures.

In agreement with other literature, the study found that the rate at which inventors patent increases in their first decade of work life, however this number declines in the early 40s. Contrary to prior research, “the nature of inventions changes more or less monotonically with age, with invention attributions related to experience (backward citations, originality) rising with age, and patent attributes related to creativity (forward citations, disruptiveness, generality and number of claims) falling with age,” according to the study.

The researchers note that their study was guided by previous studies which found that over the lifetime, there are both losses and gains in cognitive function which can affect performance in various aspects of life. According to the study, it is assumed that older adults are “less creative and productive” compared to younger individuals due to declines in cognitive ability. However, research supports that on average older adults have higher levels of crystallized abilities (Gc) than their younger counterparts, though older adults have lower levels of fluid abilities (Gf) compared to the younger generation. 

“Because of the important contribution of both of Gc and Gf abilities to invention, we expect that a given inventor’s rate of patenting will peak in middle age when both of these abilities are relatively high; that is, knowledge and experience have accumulated and are on the rise, and the deficits in fluid reasoning have not reached their nadir,” reads the study

The results the researchers collected provides longitudinal data and data on the qualitative attributes of the patents. This allowed for the research to examine the demographics of the inventors over the years and their pattern patterns as well as looking at the patents to rate the creativity level over time. The research also was able to look at the age demographics of different patent teams to explore how the ages of members affect the activities of the team as a whole. 

The research confirmed that the age of patenting peaks at age 40, and this is consistent across the gender binary. The pattern observed is also consistent with Gc and Gf levels which contribute towards inventive activity in the lifetime. Though, the researchers note that the findings they have discovered are not a test of the cognitive aging theory, according to the study.

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