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Risk of veering off-topic in chat rises with age

People are more likely to deviate off topic during conversation, the older they become, research suggests.

Tests carried out on a group of 60 people show that older people are not as skilled as younger people at keeping a conversation on track.

Speech samples

Researchers found people who are more likely to wander tend to be more knowledgeable but are less skilled at selecting the most relevant parts of their wisdom to use.

Psychologists used a series of computerised tests to assess 840 speech samples from the group, whose ages ranged from 18 to more than 80 years old.

Measuring knowledge

The researchers from the University used two tests – one to measure the ability to choose relevant information and another to quantify knowledge.

Firstly participants were given a series of subjects to speak about for one minute. Researchers then measured the coherence of the participants’ speech – how likely they were to talk about the subject given, rather than producing irrelevant information.

Then they were given a series of tests to measure thinking skills. One of these measured how knowledgeable they were, by testing their vocabulary. Another tested their ability to focus on specific aspects of their knowledge – for example, by matching familiar objects based on their colour.

Thinking skills

The team found, on average, older people were not as skilled as younger people at selecting which information to share.

People with less coherent speech tended to have more knowledge but were less good at selecting the most relevant elements of their knowledge.

Researchers say the study helps to understand the underlying cognitive mechanisms that can cause changes in the quality of social interactions as people age.   

Previous studies had found that older people tend to be less coherent in conversation but the reason for this change wasn’t clear. 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.

Lead researcher Paul HoffmanSchool of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences

The study is published in the journal eLife.

 Image in overview summary - Getty/DrAfter123