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19 April 2022

Investigating the role of conflict in older adults’ Theory of Mind abilities

We caught up with Principal Investigator Dr Charlotte Hartwright and lead researcher Dr Foyzul Rahman to find out more about how CANTAB helped them disentangle executive function from social cognition in healthy older adults.

Can you tell us more about the research?

Previous research suggests that healthy older adults find it difficult to represent the thoughts and beliefs of others, particularly when those beliefs differ from their own. However, this capacity, termed ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM), is challenging to assess independently from executive functions such as memory, inhibitory control and attention. Executive functions are important for an operational ToM, for example, to manage conflicting viewpoints between ourselves and someone else, but executive functions also generally decline with age.

Our recent work, 'Sources of Cognitive Conflict and Their Relevance to Theory-of-Mind Proficiency in Healthy Aging: A Preregistered Study’, specifically aimed to assess the role of different sources of cognitive conflict in ToM. Critically, we wanted to disentangle any effects of ageing executive functions from any ageing-coupled changes in ToM.

We assessed how different types of conflict might explain older adults’ performance in ToM. We recruited 100 healthy adult participants and asked them to complete a novel ToM task, a neuropsychological battery using the CANTAB, and a dementia screening.

What were your methods?

We developed a novel ToM experiment based on the false-belief paradigm, which is commonly used in studies of social cognition. This task manipulated key sources of conflict reflecting social (ToM) and non-social (executive) sources of conflict, allowing us to compare performance across younger and older participants. We were particularly interested to see how each source of conflict affected the participants’ ToM, taking their age into account.

In addition, to assess which aspects of executive functioning explained the magnitude of conflict introduced, we also used the following tasks from CANTAB:

  • Choice Reaction Time (CRT)
  • Stop Signal Task (SST)
  • Attention Switching Task (AST)
  • Spatial Working Memory (SWM)

Why did you choose CANTAB?

We developed a novel ToM task which manipulated three theoretically relevant sources of conflict. These sources of conflict commonly occur in experimental studies of ToM. We wanted to use an established tool to assess the cognitive bases of these sources of conflict, and to provide a more widely interpretable picture. CANTAB allowed us to do that, giving our paper a strong theoretical and empirical basis.

What were the key findings and implications of your study?

Consistent with wider studies, older adults demonstrated poorer performance than younger adults across the CANTAB measures - simple reaction time (CRT), inhibitory control (SST), attention (AST) and working memory (SWM). Interestingly, differences in older adults’ ToM were best explained by limits in executive functions that occur naturally with ageing, not a decline in ToM per se. Our work suggests that prior research may therefore underestimate older adults’ ToM abilities, because certain types of conflict are especially hard for older adults to resolve. 

Non-social conflict demands in ToM disproportionally affected older adults. This is an important finding because it tells us to be cautious when interpreting prior research. It also highlights that future studies must carefully consider how to minimise conflict when they measure ToM in older people; some studies of ToM introduce conflict which is not necessary for ToM and should therefore be avoided when designing research studies.

About the research team

This research was conducted at Aston University by former PhD candidate, Dr Foyzul Rahman, overseen by Dr Charlotte Hartwright, School of Psychology, and the wider team, Prof Klaus Kessler (now University College Dublin), Prof Ian Apperly (University of Birmingham), Dr Peter Hansen (University of Birmingham), former MSc candidate Sabrina Javed and Prof Carol Holland (Lancaster University). The team comprised researchers in Social Cognition, Ageing, and Experimental Psychology.

Find out more

Further details on this study are available here.


Rahman, F., Kessler, K., Apperly, I. A., Hansen, P. C., Javed, S., Holland, C. A., & Hartwright, C. E. (2021). Sources of Cognitive Conflict and Their Relevance to Theory-of-Mind Proficiency in Healthy Aging: A Preregistered Study. Psychological science, 32(12), 1918-1936.

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Author portrait

Charlotte Hartwright and Foyzul Rahman, Aston University, UK