Using Implicit Association Tests in Age-Heterogeneous Samples: The Importance of Cognitive Abilities and Quad Model Processes

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Implicit association tests (IATs) are increasingly used to indirectly assess people’s traits, attitudes, or other characteristics. In addition to measuring traits or attitudes, IAT scores also reflect differences in cognitive abilities because scores are based on reaction times (RTs) and errors. As cognitive abilities change with age, questions arise concerning the usage and interpretation of IATs for people of different age. To address these questions, the current study examined how cognitive abilities and cognitive processes (i.e., quad model parameters) contribute to IAT results in a large age-heterogeneous sample. Participants (N = 549; 51% female) in an age-stratified sample (range = 12–88 years) completed different IATs and 2 tasks to assess cognitive processing speed and verbal ability. From the IAT data, D2-scores were computed based on RTs, and quad process parameters (activation of associations, overcoming bias, detection, guessing) were estimated from individual error rates. Substantial IAT scores and quad processes except guessing varied with age. Quad processes AC and D predicted D2-scores of the content-specific IAT. Importantly, the effects of cognitive abilities and quad processes on IAT scores were not significantly moderated by participants’ age. These findings suggest that IATs seem suitable for age-heterogeneous studies from adolescence to old age when IATs are constructed and analyzed appropriately, for example with D-scores and process parameters. We offer further insight into how D-scoring controls for method effects in IATs and what IAT scores capture in addition to implicit representations of characteristics.

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