Welsh, Marilyn C., 1955-


Peterson, Eric

Committee Member

Collins, Susan (Susan Marie)

Committee Member

Karlin, Nancy J.


Educational Psychology


University of Northern Colorado

Type of Resources


Place of Publication

Greeley (Colo.)


University of Northern Colorado

Date Created





186 pages

Digital Origin

Born digital


The human ability to understand the mental states of others is a fundamental skill necessary for social interactions. Some researchers have argued that two cognitive systems underlie mental state understanding; one that is cognitively efficient and another that is cognitively effortful and partially mediated by explicit processes. The purpose of the current study was to investigate mental state understanding in older adults (aged 60 to 87) from the framework of examining these two systems. To achieve these goals, the current study used two tasks that differed in the degree to which they involve implicit versus explicit processes. A level-1 visual perspective taking task was employed to examine if older adults showed evidence of automatically processing another individual's perspective (in this task, the "other" perspective was a digital avatar displayed on a computer screen). A dual task was utilized to examine the impact of inhibitory control on level-1 visual perspective taking. Explicit mental state understanding was examined with a theory of mind story task. Finally, the digit span and symbol span from the Wechsler's Adult Intelligence Scale-IV were used as measures of verbal and spatial working memory respectively. Results indicated that older adults (n = 42) were prone to egocentric interference effects, suggesting that older adults own perspective interferes with taking another individual's perspective. No evidence was found that older adults automatically process another individual's perspective; thus, no evidence was found of a cognitively efficient mechanism for mental state understanding during aging. The dual-task results indicated that only the self perspective was significantly slower for the dual task compared to the level-1 visual perspective taking alone. A hierarchical regression was conducted to examine the degree to which verbal and spatial working memory mediated theory of mind and level-1 visual perspective taking performance. Results indicated that verbal but not spatial working memory contributed to theory of mind performance. Verbal and spatial working memory did not contribute to level-1 visual perspective taking. This was the first study to examine cognitively efficient and cognitively effortful mechanisms in mental state understanding in older adults. The results offer an explanation for previous research that suggests mental state understanding in older adults declines above what can be explained by general cognitive decline. Furthermore, the results offer several theoretical contributions regarding the nature and limits of a cognitively efficient system for mental state understanding.

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