Cognitive mechanisms of false facial recognition in older adults

Emily C. Edmonds, Elizabeth L. Glisky, James C. Bartlett, Steven Z. Rapcsak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Older adults show elevated false alarm rates on recognition memory tests involving faces in comparison to younger adults. It has been proposed that this age-related increase in false facial recognition reflects a deficit in recollection and a corresponding increase in the use of familiarity when making memory decisions. To test this hypothesis, we examined the performance of 40 older adults and 40 younger adults on a face recognition memory paradigm involving three different types of lures with varying levels of familiarity. A robust age effect was found, with older adults demonstrating a markedly heightened false alarm rate in comparison to younger adults for "familiarized lures" that were exact repetitions of faces encountered earlier in the experiment, but outside the study list, and therefore required accurate recollection of contextual information to reject. By contrast, there were no age differences in false alarms to "conjunction lures" that recombined parts of study list faces, or to entirely new faces. Overall, the pattern of false recognition errors observed in older adults was consistent with excessive reliance on a familiarity-based response strategy. Specifically, in the absence of recollection older adults appeared to base their memory decisions on item familiarity, as evidenced by a linear increase in false alarm rates with increasing familiarity of the lures. These findings support the notion that automatic memory processes such as familiarity remain invariant with age, while more controlled memory processes such as recollection show age-related decline.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)54-60
Number of pages7
JournalPsychology and aging
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2012


  • Face recognition
  • Memory and aging
  • Recollection and familiarity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Aging
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology


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