A meta-analytic review of age differences in theory of mind

Julie D Henry, Louise H Phillips, Ted Ruffman, Phoebe E Bailey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

228 Citations (Scopus)


Age-related difficulties in understanding basic emotional signals are now well established, but less clear is how aging affects theory of mind (ToM), which refers to the understanding of more complex emotions and mental states. A meta-analysis of 23 datasets involving 1462 (790 younger and 672 older) participants was conducted in which six basic types of ToM task were identified (Stories, Eyes, Videos, False belief-video, False belief-other, and Faux pas). Each ToM task was also categorized according to domain (affective, cognitive, or mixed) and modality (verbal, visual-static, visual-dynamic, verbal and visual-static, or verbal and visual-dynamic). Overall, collapsed across all types of task, older adults were found to perform more poorly than younger adults, with the degree of ToM difficulty they experienced moderate in magnitude (r = -.41). The results also provide evidence for increased ToM difficulties in late adulthood regardless of specific task parameters, with deficits evident across all task types, domains, and modalities. With few exceptions, age deficits for ToM tasks were larger in magnitude compared with matched control tasks. These data have implications for our understanding of mental state attribution processes in late adulthood, suggesting that ToM difficulties are not simply secondary to non-ToM related task demands. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)826-839
Number of pages14
JournalPsychology and Aging
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2013


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