Sources of Cognitive Conflict and Their Relevance to Theory-of-Mind Proficiency in Healthy Aging: A Preregistered Study

Foyzul Rahman*, Klaus Kessler, Ian Apperly, Peter Hansen, Carol Holland, Sabrina Javed, Charlotte Hartwright

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Age-related decline in theory of mind (ToM) may be due to waning executive control, which is necessary for resolving conflict when reasoning about other individuals’ mental states. We assessed how older (n = 50) and younger (n = 50) adults were affected by three theoretically relevant sources of conflict within ToM: competing self-other perspectives, competing cued locations, and outcome knowledge. We examined which best accounted for age-related difficulty with ToM. Our data show unexpected similarity between age groups when people are representing a belief incongruent with their own. Individual differences in attention and response speed best explained the degree of conflict experienced through incompatible self-other perspectives. However, older adults were disproportionately affected by managing conflict between cued locations. Age and spatial working memory were most relevant for predicting the magnitude of conflict elicited by conflicting cued locations. We suggest that previous studies may have underestimated older adults’ ToM proficiency by including unnecessary conflict in ToM tasks.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1918-1936
Number of pages19
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number12
Early online date26 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License ( which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (


  • aging
  • executive function
  • mentalizing
  • open data
  • open materials
  • preregistered
  • social cognition
  • theory of mind


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