Aging and the prevalence of ‘ironic’ action errors under avoidant instruction

Potter, Lauren M. and Grealy, Madeleine A. (2019) Aging and the prevalence of ‘ironic’ action errors under avoidant instruction. PLOS One, 14 (3). e0213340. ISSN 1932-6203 (

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Action errors can put older adults at risk of injury. Our study is the first to investigate whether older adults are more prone than younger adults to making ‘ironic’ motor errors (i.e., actions they have been instructed not to perform), or over-compensatory motor errors (e.g., moving more to the right when instructed not to move to the left). We also investigated whether error patterns change under cognitive load, and assessed whether age effects in the ability to inhibit a prohibited action are comparable to the age decrements found in the ability to inhibit a natural perception-action coupling in the Simon task. Sixty-four older (Mean = 70.64 years, SD = 5.81) and 39 younger (Mean = 28.74 years, SD = 16.39) adults completed an avoidant instruction line-drawing task (with and without cognitive load), and the Simon task. Older adults showed significantly slower inhibition times than younger adults on the Simon task, as expected, and in line with previous research. Surprisingly, however, older adults outperformed younger adults on the avoidant instruction task, producing fewer ironic and over-compensatory errors, and they performed similarly to the younger adults under cognitive load. Age-related decrements on the Simon but not the avoidant instruction task suggests that the two different types of motor tasks involve different subtypes of inhibition which likely recruit independent cognitive processes and neural circuitry in older age. It is speculated that the older adults’ superior ability to inhibit a prohibited action could be the result of age-related changes in distractibility.