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On why not to rush older adults—relying on reactive cognitive control can effectively reduce errors at the expense of slowed responses


  • The authors thank Mr. Charles L. Brown III for computer programming and technical assistance. We thank Ms. Rebecca Edelblum and Mr. Cort Horton for their aid in recruitment and data collection, and Dr. Y. M. Cycowicz for her contributions to early phases of this research. This project was supported in part by grants HD14959 (NICHD) and AG005213 (NIA), and the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene.

Address reprint requests to: Daniela Czernochowski, Heinrich-Heine University, Universitätsstr. 1, Room, 40225 Düsseldorf, Germany. E-mail:


According to the dual-mechanisms of cognitive control framework (DMC), older adults rely predominantly on reactive as opposed to proactive control. As a result, we expected elevated response conflict for older relative to younger adults with increasing task difficulty. Response-locked ERP activity was examined separately for fast and slow responses (representing proactive and reactive control, respectively) at low, medium, and high levels of difficulty. Older adults recruited reactive control more often than the young, as reflected by increased behavioral costs and enhanced pre-response negativity (PRN). No age differences in conflict detection (medial frontal negativity, MFN) were evident at low levels of difficulty, but response conflict increased along with difficulty for older adults. These data provide empirical support for the DMC suggesting that aging is associated with a less efficient reactive-control mode of processing.