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Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Crystallized vs. Fluid Intelligence in Older Adults

Seniors have a secret weapon when it comes to brain power.

Have you ever found yourself struggling to grasp a concept that you feel you would have picked up more easily when you were younger? It can be frustrating and even a little frightening to feel like we can’t keep up with younger coworkers, or just learn the technology our grandkids absorb in a heartbeat. But it turns out that older adults have an unseen, and often unrecognized, advantage to problem solving that takes decades to develop.

There are two types of intelligence, fluid and crystallized. Although the concepts have some overlap, fluid intelligence is generally what you use to learn new information, and crystallized intelligence is using what you have already learned to solve a problem. Here’s more of a breakdown.

Fluid intelligence is your ability to:
  • Reason
  • Recognize patterns
  • Solve problems
  • Adapt to your environment and the world

Crystallized intelligence is the knowledge you’ve gained through previous exposure to a concept or principle. The two are not mutually exclusive; most problem-solving involves a combination of fluid and crystallized intelligence. However, fluid intelligence seems to peak at about age 20, while crystallized intelligence accrues over a lifetime and may peak at about age 65 or above. 

In many cases, we use fluid and crystallized intelligence together. For instance, an emergency room doctor may employ fluid intelligence to assess a new patient and arrive at a possible diagnosis, but crystallized intelligence gained from experience with similar patients will help guide that decision, and it is crystallized intelligence she will call on to come up with a treatment plan. 

Comparing Fluid and Crystallized Intelligence

The Older Team Wins

One experiment that demonstrates the higher level of crystallized intelligence in older adults involved two teams of four people each. The first team was made up of adults in their early twenties, while everyone on the second team was at least sixty. 

Researchers hung three light bulbs in one room. In another room with no windows, they wired three on/off switches that each connected to one of the bulbs. The eight participants were each taken to the room with the switches and asked to flip them to determine which switch was connected to which bulb. 

To solve the problem, a person needed to switch one bulb on for a minute or so, then turn it off. One of the other switches needed to be in the “on” position, and the third switch needed to be off. Then, the person would go into the room with the bulbs. One would be on. Of the two that were off, one would be warm from the time that it was switched on before being turned off. 

Only one member of the younger team knew how to solve the problem, but three out of four older adults got it right. Crystallized intelligence, learned over a lifetime, allowed them to figure out the solution. Reasoning (fluid intelligence) was certainly involved, but they had to know and remember that light bulbs become warm when they are turned on, even for sixty seconds.

On-the-Job Applications

Internal biases may lead to age discrimination in the workplace, but seniors, by the very fact that they are older, are likely to make better managers and contribute skills that are complementary to those of their younger coworkers. Companies tend to promote workers to management positions who have shown skill in another role, such as a salesman. 

But being an exceptional salesman doesn’t necessarily equate to being an exceptional leader of other salesmen. Leadership skills are often best acquired through experience, via the crystallized intelligence that is conferred over time. Hiring managers would do well to consider diversifying and strengthening management by actively seeking older applicants with a corresponding wealth of crystallized intelligence to provide direction and vision.

It is a bit demoralizing to know that our cognitive skills tend to decline with aging. But take heart in the knowledge that your database of learned knowledge is always increasing.