The Moderating Role of Executive Functioning in Older Adults' Responses to a Reminder of Mortality

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Abstract

In previous research, older adults responded to mortality salience (MS) with increased tolerance, whereas younger persons responded with increased punitiveness. One possible explanation for this is that many older adults adapt to challenges of later life, such as the prospect of mortality, by becoming more flexible. Recent studies suggest that positively oriented adaptation is more likely for older adults with high levels of executive functioning. Thus, we hypothesized that the better an older adult's executive functioning, the more likely MS would result in increased tolerance. Older and younger adults were randomly assigned to MS or control conditions, and then evaluated moral transgressors. As in previous research, younger adults were more punitive after reminders of mortality; executive functioning did not affect their responses. Among older adults, high functioning individuals responded to MS with increased tolerance rather than intolerance, whereas those low in functioning became more punitive.

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