Aging and Theory of Mind: Do generational differences in communication style effect performance on more ecologically valid tasks?
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Abstract A topic of considerable interest in recent years is whether healthy adult aging is associated with declines in Theory of Mind (ToM) and what underlying processes cause these declines. Previous studies have used a wide variety, however relatively few have assessed the relationship between ToM and aging using a more ecologically valid task. The current study assesses the effects of aging on ToM abilities using a more ecologically valid task and furthermore investigates whether generational differences in communication style influence performance. To this end a novel video-based faux pas test was developed by using video clips from two different time periods: the nineteen-seventies and the two-thousands. The Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test was also used to assess age differences in ToM. Results support previous research, with older adults performing significantly poorer than younger adults in both ToM tests. No age differences were found for control task performance. Processing speed but not short-term verbal and visual memory were found to predict faux pas performance. Further analysis of faux pas performance in the nineteen-seventies clips revealed that although overall there were no significant age differences, younger adults were significantly more accurate when reasoning about the intentions and beliefs of the protagonist. No age differences were observed however for detecting and understanding a faux pas or reasoning about the emotional impact this had on the respondent. On the other hand, in the two-thousands clips a significant age effect was found, where younger adults were more accurate on all faux pas questions compared to older adults. These findings appear to support previous studies in the literature that suggest when video based stimuli is used faux pas performance is dependent on emotion recognition abilities and further extend these findings to reveal that generational differences may exist in the expression of emotion.