Theory of mind in older adults: the nature of the decline

Ariela Gigi, Merav Papirovitz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Successful social interaction depends (among others) on one’s ability to understand other people’s emotional states (known as “affective-Theory-of-Mind”; aToM). A decline in this ability could be associated with changes in awareness with age. Awareness can be estimated by comparing one’s subjective and objective abilities. Here we explored the sequence of changes in aToM with age, with reference to objective and subjective capacities. One hundred and eight participants were divided into three age groups: young (18–39), adults (60–69), and elders’ group (70–86). Objective aToM performance was assessed using the Frith-Happé animation task (including meaningful and meaningless interactions). The subjective performance was evaluated by a Short Subjective ToM Questionnaire (sToM10). The results in the animation task showed reduction in the ability to correctly categorize meaningless interaction among the adult participants (compared to young) and a further decrease in the ability to correctly categorize meaningful interactions among the elderly participants (compared to young participants). Subjective aToM results revealed that while older participants reported a reduction in general ability to infer feelings in others, they could not report a decrease in their ability to recognize specific feelings. Our results may indicate a unique characteristic of aToM decline, which may start in adults (60–69; only reflected when the social demands are high) and further aggravates as people grow older (70th and above). In addition, results of the self-report questionnaire may indicate that while the elders are fully aware of their general decline in aToM ability, awareness of their capability to identify specific emotions is impaired.

Original languageEnglish
JournalApplied neuropsychology. Adult
StateAccepted/In press - 2022


  • Cognitive empathy
  • affective ToM
  • aging
  • awareness
  • social cognition


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