Study shows cognitive information processing speed remains largely stable over decades
Mental speed – the speed at which we can process problems requiring quick decision-making – does not change dramatically over decades. Psychologists from the University of Heidelberg came to this conclusion. Led by Dr. Mischa von Krause and Dr. Stefan Radev, they evaluated data from a large-scale online experiment with over one million participants. The results of the new study suggest that cognitive information processing speed remains largely stable between the ages of 20 and 60, and only deteriorates at older ages. The Heidelberg researchers thus challenged the assumption that mental speed begins to decline already in early adulthood.
“The common assumption is that the older we get, the slower we react to external stimuli. If this were the case, mental speed would be fastest at around age twenty and then decline with age,” explains Dr. von Krause, a researcher in the Department of Quantitative Research Methods led by Prof. Dr. Andreas Voß at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Heidelberg. In order to test this theory, the researchers reassessed data from a large-scale US study on implicit bias. In the online experiment with over a million participants, subjects had to press a button to sort pictures of people into ‘white’ or ‘black’ categories and words into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ categories. “. According to Dr. von Krause, the focus on content was of minor importance in the Heidelberg study. Instead, the researchers used the large batch of data as an example of a response time task to measure the duration of cognitive decisions.
When evaluating the data, Dr. von Krause and his colleagues noted that, on average, test subjects’ response times increased with age. However, using a mathematical model, they were able to show that this phenomenon was not due to changes in mental speed. “Instead, we think older test subjects are primarily slower because they respond more cautiously and focus more on avoiding mistakes,” says Mischa von Krause. At the same time, the speed of motor execution slows down during adult life: older participants in the experiment needed more time to press the appropriate key after finding the correct answer.
Another finding of the study was that the average speed of information processing decreased only gradually in participants over 60 years of age. “It seems that during our lifetime we need not fear substantial losses in mental speed — especially not during a typical working life,” says Mischa von Krause. we should also note that test subjects in all age groups included individuals with high and low mental speed. Our results relate to the average trend.”
The German Research Foundation (DFG) funded the research work as part of the research training group for doctoral students “Statistical modeling in psychology” (GRK 2277). The results were published in the journal Nature Human behavior.
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