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Cognitive and affective associations with an ecologically valid test of theory of mind across the lifespan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Emilie Johansson Nolaker, Kim Murray, Francesca Gabrielle Elizabeth Happe, Rebecca A Charlton

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)754-763
Issue number6
Early online date24 May 2018
Accepted/In press16 Jan 2018
E-pub ahead of print24 May 2018
PublishedSep 2018


King's Authors


Objectives: Many studies have demonstrated that theory of mind (ToM) ability declines with increasing age. Research has found that ToM-age associations are often mediated by other cognitive abilities particularly executive function. However, older adults rarely complain about real-world ToM difficulties. It has been suggested that older adults may perform better in real-world situations compared to experimental settings.

Methods: We examined performance on the Strange Stories Film Task (SSFT) which has been designed to assess ToM using naturalistic, video scenarios. Sixty adults aged between 17-95 years old completed the SSFT, inhibitory control (Stroop) and working memory (Letter-Number Sequencing) measures, the basic empathy scale (cognitive and affective empathy), and the broad autism phenotype questionnaire.

Results: ToM performance correlated significantly with age, whereas performance on a control task did not. Partial correlations and stepwise regression analyses demonstrated that performance on the three SSFT ToM measures was explained by a combination of executive function and empathy measures, with age explaining none of the variance.

Conclusions: Using a naturalistic test of ToM, performance was shown to decline with age for ToM but not control scenarios. Across the lifespan, the variance in ToM performance was explained by cognitive abilities and empathy but not age. Age alone may not influence ToM ability, but may be associated with age-related changes in cognition and social-cognition.

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