Motivation and social-cognitive abilities in older adults: Convergent evidence from self-report measures and cardiovascular reactivity

PLoS One. 2019 Jul 10;14(7):e0218785. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0218785. eCollection 2019.


Recently, some authors have suggested that age-related impairments in social-cognitive abilities-emotion recognition (ER) and theory of mind (ToM)-may be explained in terms of reduced motivation and effort mobilization in older adults. We examined performance on ER and ToM tasks, as well as corresponding control tasks, experimentally manipulating self-involvement. Sixty-one older adults and 57 young adults were randomly assigned to either a High or Low self-involvement condition. In the first condition, self-involvement was raised by telling participants were told that good task performance was associated with a number of positive, personally relevant social outcomes. Motivation was measured with both subjective (self-report questionnaire) and objective (systolic blood pressure reactivity-SBP-R) indices. Results showed that the self-involvement manipulation did not increase self-reported motivation, SBP-R, or task performance. Further correlation analyses focusing on individual differences in motivation did not reveal any association with performance, in either young or older adults. Notably, we found age-related decline in both ER and ToM, despite older adults having higher motivation than young adults. Overall, the present results were not consistent with previous claims that motivation affects older adults' social-cognitive performance, opening the route to potential alternative explanations.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Blood Pressure / physiology
  • Cardiovascular System*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Emotional Regulation / physiology*
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Self Report
  • Social Skills*
  • Systole / physiology
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Theory of Mind

Grants and funding

The authors received no specific funding for this work.