Implicit Motivation Makes the Brain Grow Younger: Improving Executive Functions of Older Adults

Shira Cohen-Zimerman
Ran R. Hassin

The dominant view of cognitive aging holds that while controlled processes (e.g., working memory and executive functions) decline with age, implicit (automatic) processes do not. In this paper we challenge this view by arguing that high-level automatic processes (e.g., implicit motivation) decline with age, and that this decline plays an important and as yet unappreciated role in cognitive aging.
Specifically, we hypothesized that due to their decline, high-level automatic processes are less likely to be spontaneously activated in old age, and so their subtle, external activation should have stronger effects on older (vs. younger) adults. In two experiments we used different methods of implicitly activating motivation, and measured executive functions of younger and older adults via the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test. In Experiment 1 we used goal priming to subtly increase achievement motivation. In Experiment 2 motivation was manipulated by subtly increasing engagement in the task. More specifically, we introduce the Jerusalem Face Sorting Test (JFST), a modified version of the WCST that uses cards with faces instead of geometric shapes. In both experiments, implicitly induced changes in motivation improved older- but not younger- adults’ executive functioning.
The framework we propose is general, and it has implications as to how we view and test cognitive functions. Our case study of older adults offers a new look at various aspects of cognitive aging. Applications of this view to other special populations (e.g., ADHD, schizophrenia) and possible interventions are discussed.

January, 2017