Skip to main content
Research and Innovation

Motivation May Explain Disconnect Between Cognitive Testing and Real-Life Functioning for Older Adults

A psychology researcher at North Carolina State University is proposing a new theory to explain why older adults show declining cognitive ability with age, but don’t necessarily show declines in the workplace or daily life. One key appears to be how motivated older adults are to maintain focus on cognitive tasks.

“My research team and I wanted to explain the difference we see in cognitive performance in different settings,” says Dr. Tom Hess, a professor of psychology at NC State and author of a paper describing the theory. “For example, laboratory tests almost universally show that cognitive ability declines with age, so you would expect older adults to perform worse in situations that rely on such abilities, such as job performance – but you don’t. Why is that? That’s what this theoretical framework attempts to address.”

Hess has been developing this framework, called “selective engagement,” over the past 10 years, based on years of work on the psychology of aging.

At issue are cognitive performance and cognitive functioning. Both deal with cognition, which is an individual’s ability to focus on complex mental tasks, switch between tasks, tune out distractions and retain a good working memory. However, cognitive performance generally refers to how people fare under test conditions, whereas cognitive functioning usually refers to an individual’s ability to deal with mental tasks in daily life.

“There’s a body of work in psychology research indicating that performing complex mental tasks is more taxing for older adults,” Hess says. “This means older adults have to work harder to perform these tasks. In addition, it takes older adults longer to recover from this sort of exertion. As a result, I argue that older adults have to make decisions about how to prioritize their efforts.”

This is where selective engagement comes in. The idea behind the theory is that older adults are more likely to fully commit their mental resources to a task if they can identify with the task or consider it personally meaningful. This would explain the disparity between cognitive performance in experimental settings and cognitive functioning in the real world.

“This first occurred to me when my research team saw that cognitive performance seemed to be influenced by how we framed the tasks in our experiments,” Hess says. “Tasks that people found personally relevant garnered higher levels of cognitive performance than more abstract tasks.”

Hess next hopes to explore the extent to which selective engagement is reflected in the daily life of older adults and the types of activities they choose to engage in.

“This would not only further our understanding of cognition and aging, it may also help researchers identify possible interventions to slow declines in cognitive functioning,” Hess says.

The paper, “Selective Engagement of Cognitive Resources: Motivational Influences on Older Adults’ Cognitive Functioning,” is published online in Perspectives on Psychological Science. The work builds on research performed under multiple grants from the National Institute on Aging.


Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Selective Engagement of Cognitive Resources: Motivational Influences on Older Adults’ Cognitive Functioning”

Author: Thomas M. Hess, North Carolina State University

Published: July 2014, Perspectives on Psychological Science

DOI: 10.1177/1745691614527465

Abstract: This paper presents a framework for understanding the impact of aging-related declines in cognitive resources on functioning. I make the assumption that aging is associated with an increase in the costs of cognitive engagement, as reflected in both the effort required to achieve a specific level of task performance and the associated depletion or fatigue effects. I further argue that these costs result in older adults being increasingly selective in the engagement of cognitive resources in response to these declines. This selectivity is reflected in: (a) a reduction in the intrinsic motivation to engage in cognitively demanding activities, which in part accounts for general reductions in engagement in such activities; and (b) greater sensitivity to the self-related implications of a given task. Both processes are adaptive if viewed in terms of resource conservation, but the former may also be maladaptive to the extent that it results in older adults restricting participation in cognitively demanding activities that could ultimately benefit cognitive health. I review supportive research and make the general case for the importance of considering motivational factors in understanding aging effects on cognitive functioning.