Lifelong learning and memory

We are far from having a satisfactory answer to why and how the importance of specific (developmental) goals becomes significant. People are in principle able to redefine what they have previously considered to be boring or distracting into being means or goals that are valued. On the other hand, they can be motivated to learn and improve their skills through goals (e.g. to cope with a chronic disease). Learning in adulthood has many faces and there are many reasons for doing so. It is not per chance that the term lifelong learning is used to contrast with learning at school, which can be associated with negative emotions and seen as a burden. Similar constructs such as self-regulated or self-determined learning (Panadero, 2017) focus on self-efficacy or metacognitive competences (volition, strategies, setting a goal) and demonstrate a similarity with self-efficiency: Motivation and willingness are taken for granted or serve as the aim of interventions. Lifelong learning in this sense pertains to the capacity of adults to learn despite age-related limitations, and education serves as a developmental goal per se. When learning is reduced to the school requirements, its importance is overlooked and consequences that contribute to quality of life are ignored. With this in mind, we address the issue of the by-products learning could have, and which in turn could shape the development of will or preferences, without directly being wished by ourselves or dictated by others.

Learning and differentiation

We concentrate on some cognitive-motivational aspects that are of relevance for the development of intentions. From the perspective of classical and operant conditioning, learners are conceptualized as passive organisms that respond with specific behaviours through the process of association. Both forms of conditioning involve behaviours controlled by environmental stimuli. The strength of a behaviour is modified when an aversive or positively valued stimulus is paired with a previously neutral stimulus, or with reinforcement or punishment when the specific behaviour occurred. One should not underestimate the creative power of these rather mechanical processes for the development of specific life goals, given that useful social contacts or contexts are preferred as a consequence of previous learning history (see also negative reinforcement and avoidance learning).

The mere-exposure effect denotes the tendency for individuals to develop preferences for objects with which they have repeated experience (Zajonc & Markus, 1982). Contrary to the proverb about familiarity breeding contempt, there is evidence that familiarity breeds fondness. A frequently cited study by Robert Zajonc (1968) has shown, for example, that the more times American students had seen unknown Turkish words or Chinese-like characters, the more likely they were to say it meant something good. Telling the story such that the mere exposure is capable of making the attitudes towards objects more positive would be too simple. Although the experimental literature has shown that a repeatedly presented stimulus pattern becomes increasingly familiar and that ratings indicative of hedonic tone might steadily rise, we should consider the mediating role of other factors involved. Cicero described the phenomenon of satiation. In de oratore, he noted that it is difficult to explain for what reasons those objects which most strongly strike our senses with pleasure, or occasion the most violent emotions at their first appearance, we soonest turn away with a certain loathing and satiety (Cicero, 1977, p. 78). Novelty and complexity have been used to link arousal and affect with personal preferences (Berlyne, 1974).

Depending on prior experience or level of differentiation, everyday tasks that are highly satisfying for some people might be evaluated as being too simple or complex by others. Differences in learning motives or investment among adults depend on education, openness to experience, professional or personal requirements, and expectations about the potential profit. Critical life events such as an unintentional unemployment or living with a chronic disease can make further education in a specific domain necessary.

As to ISD, two general functions of learning can be distinguished. One is to improve and mobilize action resources. These in turn can be used to reach higher-order goals. We can learn a new language in order to spend our retirement in a country we like. Having paramount interests makes it easier to recover from setbacks such as demotivating early language barriers.

The second function pertains to personality development in a broader sense. Education in this regard broadens and differentiates the self. The ability to integrate the inevitable into the self or to value facets of life can be construed as process of differentiation. Leisure time and personal projects are executed and become mixed with the acquisition of expertise, sometimes without intentional effort (implicit learning). An active and engaged lifestyle (time spent engaged in attending cultural events, visiting people, work) can alleviate cognitive decline in old age (Lovden et al., 2005). The cultural market can meet diverse interests, but sometimes presupposes interest and a degree of expertise. For instance, listening to classical music might be experienced as being too demanding (‘They started to play flutes and violins! That was beyond me. I changed the channel.’). Emotions can be evoked by different stimuli for different people, but they can also be cultivated. We like to refer to the emotional experience when we evaluate our cultural favourites: ‘verse is made by being touched emotionally, and not by counted sounds’ (von Haller, The Alps); however, one cannot expect cultural artefacts to meet everyone’s needs.

According to the model proposed by Leder and colleagues, complex preferences such as aesthetical judgements consist of a series of processes involving an interaction between previous experience and cognitive-evaluative processes. These include automatic processes such as perception (perception and implicit classification of a stimulus), as well as a more explicit categorization (explicit categorization and cognitive mastering) and evaluation (Leder et al., 2004). One difficulty is that people’s preferences and aesthetic responses differ so greatly, and that experience factors are interconnected with personal and social preconditions.

It seems to me that one of the tasks in the lifelong learning of intentions/goals is to find the balance between two poles: how can we best make an effort to win the garland or how we can we find a significance in the less-is-more attitude? The process of learning involves several motives, in short: the intentional striving for the improvement of competencies and the differentiation of taste. Both contribute to the development of the self.

The well-known experience of setbacks makes it plausible that some authors stress the trial-and-error principle as a central factor of knowledge acquisition. Meumann (1908) states that the success (exactness) of human perception presupposes that we have a clear intention about a specific goal which we wish to pursue. But we should be ready to correct preconceived intentions or expectations through that what we actually do find, in order to expand knowledge (see Meumann, 1908, p. 80). The late Sir Karl Popper (e.g. 1972) has stressed many times the close links between the activities of the mind and the methods of science. We cannot simply ‘transcribe’ what we see, we have to resort to methods of trial and error. Science is based on conjectures that are open to falsification. Popper reminds us that individuals’ claims are not based on secure knowledge, but on hypotheses. The process of schema and correction can be used not only for the knowledge domain, but is also applicable to concepts of intentional goal pursuit and goal adjustment.

Autobiographical memory

The interplay between the acquisition of new information and prior beliefs presupposes sequential processes in which prior structures both affect the acquisition of information and are affected by it. Research on human memory, especially on autobiographic memories or similar concepts such as reminiscence or life review (Staudinger, 2001), has elaborated the function of past experience for intentional states and goals. Traditionally, remembering is conceived of as a dynamic process. As Frederic Bartlett (1932) already noted, remembering is ‘a reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organised past reactions or experience, ...’ (p. 213). He used the term schema to denote ‘an active organisation of past reactions, or of past experiences, which must always be supposed to be operating in any well-adapted response’. More recently, several studies have elaborated details of the interaction between autobiographical memory and intentional states and provided evidence of a self-regulating function of previous experiences (e.g. Conway & Williams, 2008; Fivush, 2011; Vranic et al., 2018; Waters et al., 2014). Autobiographical memory denotes memory for past events of our life or personally relevant past events. It serves directive, social, and self-related functions in our everyday lives (Bluck & Aiea, 2002).

The directive function pertains to the role of autobiographical memory in guiding future behaviour and solving current problems. Knowledge of the self in the past can be used to prepare for an upcoming engagement or to avoid making a mistake.

Social functions include the regulation of social bonding and conversation. Autobiographical memories within narratives can help to define oneself in relation to others. Sharing experiences can foster social relationships and create intimacy.

The third category includes the constructive role of memories in personality development. They are linked to the self-concept and contribute to feelings such as continuity, identity, and self-worth. The personal history defines who one is across contexts and times.

These three broad functions have different labels, but they do not necessarily represent different categories in everyday life. From an action-theoretical perspective, it is important to note that all three functions are interconnected with intentions and goal pursuit. Within the SMS (self-memory system) model, Conway and Williams (2008) focus on the interaction between fluid aspects of the self, for example currently active goals, with more permanent representations of the self. It is assumed that the working self regulates the construction by controlling the cues that are used to activate self-knowledge. On the other hand, the self consists of knowledge structures and anticipated states that are interlinked with episodic memories and autobiographical knowledge.

Several studies document the adaptive role of autobiographical memories. Important characteristics are that they can be recalled vividly and with perceptual detail. Some of them pertain to single, some to recurring, events. Some of them are associated with strong emotional experience including arousal and personal importance. As I have already discussed, evaluative or emotional qualities are assumed to be important factors in intentional self-regulation. For instance, individuals select to recall particular memories to achieve emotion regulation. As Holland and Kensinger (2010) argued, the emotional content of an experience can influence the way in which events are remembered, and emotional goals experienced at the time of autobiographical retrieval can lead to biases in how well we recall emotional details. Memories are often organized into coherent stories. Sometimes retellings are not identical and differ depending on goals and motivation. Research on narratives has shown that events that persons have experienced multiple times in their lifetime are associated with the social functions, whereas single events serve more of a self and directive function (Waters et al., 2014). Rathbone et al. (2015) demonstrated that the valence of semantic self-images (i.e. autobiographical knowledge about the self, traits, family roles) was highly correlated with well-being. Lewin reminds us of a well-known intentional phenomenon that puts the interconnected time perspectives in a nutshell: ‘If a purpose or intention responds dynamically to a tense system, it is to be expected that Zeigarnik finds that memory for uncompleted activities is much better.’ (Lewin, 1935, p. 243).

Empirical results have found age differences depending on the degree of differentiation in the measurements. Webster (2002) differentiated between eight forms or functions of reminiscence: There were significant age differences on most of the single function scales. For instance, young adults tend to use autobiographical memory more for boredom reduction, clarifying who they are, and problem solving (or directing future behaviour; see also Vranic et al., 2018). Older adults scored higher on factors of death preparation and teaching/informing. When using the total score, no age differences were found. This results contradict the stereotype that reminiscence is mainly a matter of old age. In terms of cognitive-emotional qualities, young adults expressed more positive affect, more cognitive characteristics (as to underlying causation or tentativeness), but less sensory imagery in their narratives than older adults did (Bluck & Aiea, 2009).

Life themes and life stories of individuals are based on memories and contain factual and evaluative knowledge. They contribute to the development of expectations about and subjective evaluations of age-related changes as well as changes in control beliefs. The ability to link the past self to the present self has often been acknowledged as a prerequisite of conducting one’s life successfully (Conway & Williams, 2008; Fivush, 2011). Critical-evaluative processes in life reflection include both life review and life planning (Staudinger, 2001). Without experience, there would be little in the way of expertise in dealing with difficult life problems, personality, individuality, and culture (Staudinger & Gliick, 2011). Concepts of ideal developmental states, such as wisdom, mature thought, or identity, suggest that humans can apply an ample perspective when they attempt to solve current life tasks by using currently available experience they have learned through social interactions or, broadly defined, from ancestors and the history of human culture. Old Greek drawings differ from physical reality, but serve as a basis for our cultural-historical understanding through the ages. They provide views of animals’ heads, everyday objects, or action scenes and result in visual impressions that remain fixed in our minds - a memory-picture (Loewy, 1907). From Homer’s Iliad, we know something about Nestors (i.e. experienced oldest members of a group of Greek kings) who contributed to the preservation of knowledge and were valued as political advisors (Greve & Bjorklund, 2009).

The structure of the concept of action: The difficulties

I now return to some difficulties that are inherent in the concept of human action. Although several psychological models stress the link between attitudes, intentions, and behaviour, one cannot be sure whether this link denotes a causal sequence of events (in contrast to a mere series of concepts). Thus, although it does not seem possible to interpret between intervening actions and developmental phenomena causally, actions can be explained by the actor’s argumentative orientation base. Causal contingencies require that effects be verifiable independent of the causes (Brandtstadter, 2006; Greve, 2001). It is obvious that not every intention is executed, but if they are and individuals act according to their intentions, there are still doubts that this relationship means that intentions are the causes of a specific action. In other words, it is difficult to prove that specific behaviour is the product of intentions and volitions (see also Chapter 1). The logical-connection argument claims that intentions and actions are logically related. Such developmental sequences do not represent empirical laws, but rather structural implications (e.g. conceptual overlap of constructs, truth by definition).

According to common definitions, behaviour is called ‘action’ if criteria are fulfilled.

Brandtstadter (1984, 2006) stresses the double role of rules:

• Regulative rules: Action is regulated by formal and informal cultural restrictions (e.g. by laws, norms, expectations). We do not use motor oil in making a salad.

• Constitutive rules: Actions are constituted by rules. The significance of constitutive rules for the analysis of ontogenetic consequences is particularly evident in connection with questions of competence development (e.g. social competence, moral judgement, coping competencies).

The concept of action is often brought into close relationship with the criteria of intentions, rules, control, or choice. I have used these concepts and referred to empirical studies, and I have accepted that empirical relations and conceptual similarities are confounded.

Greve (2001) suggested that the logical-connection argument can be circumvented if the existing findings are reinterpreted as a part of a psychology of intention. By doing so, we can avoid some problems, but we have to try to rule out structural implications and conceptual overlap of intentions too. Nonetheless, even if not in a causal sense, the ISD approach assumes that we can substantially contribute to our development through intentions. Given these constraints, developmental sequences involve an ‘actional’ nexus that cannot be nomologically universalized.

Summary

I have shown mental processes (e.g. attributions, preferences, and decisions) that are involved when individuals execute intentions. Using a short-term perspective, I discussed intentionally controllable processes and automatic, unconscious processes that are interconnected with human action. On the whole, sequences of short-term segments constitute the course of how individuals develop. Development across the life span is mediated by causal constraints, as well as intentional orientations. Actions are conceptualized as interpretative constructs. They are not causally determined by expectations, values, or control beliefs, but consist of them conceptually.

Action is mediated by belief-value interactions. In the process of ISD, knowledge and abilities are utilized to attain goals. Plans are formed and carried out. People often cannot account for the causes of their behaviour, but this does not mean that their reasons are without validity. We use automatic processes that depend on previous experiences (personal preference and value structure) as well as processes of perception.

 
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