Skip to main content

Task intentions and their implementation into actions: cognitive control from adolescence to middle adulthood


Cognitive control processes involved in human multitasking arise, mature, and decline across age. This study investigated how age modulates cognitive control at two different levels: the level of task intentions and the level of the implementation of intentions into the corresponding actions. We were particularly interested in specifying maturation of voluntary task choice (intentions) and task-switching execution (their implementations) between adolescence and middle adulthood. Seventy-four participants were assigned to one of the four age groups (adolescents, 12–17 years; emerging adults, 18–22 years; young adults, 23–27 years; middle-aged adults, 28–56 years). Participants chose between two simple cognitive tasks at the beginning of each trial before pressing a spacebar to indicate that the task choice was made. Next, a stimulus was presented in one of the three adjacent boxes, with participants identifying either the location or the shape of the stimulus, depending on their task choice. This voluntary task-switching paradigm allowed us to investigate the intentional component (task choice) separately from its implementation (task execution). Although all participants showed a tendency to repeat tasks more often than switching between them, this repetition bias was significantly stronger in adolescents than in any adult group. Furthermore, participants generally responded slower after task switches than after task repetitions. This switch cost was similar across tasks in the two younger groups but larger for the shape than the location task in the two older groups. Together, our results demonstrate that both task intentions and their implementation into actions differ across age in quite specific ways.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1


  1. Cognitive tasks can differ in their relative strength due to various factors, such as task difficulty, familiarity, and the amount of practice. A stronger task of a pair is the one that participants find easier to execute, because it is less difficult, more familiar, or more practiced. In the remainder of this paper, we used the terms easier and harder to refer to the stronger and the weaker task, respectively.

  2. The differences in labelling reflect differences in research traditions: While the term mixing costs is mostly used within the research field of cognitive psychology, the term global costs is more common within the developmental and aging research fields. Please note that the two are not always measured in the same way. Mixing costs are typically measured as a difference in task repetition performance when comparing single tasks blocks with mixed task blocks, whereas global costs are mainly measured as a difference in performance between single task blocks and mixed task blocks, including the switch trials in the latter.

  3. This observation of age differentiation for percentages of task repetitions was confirmed when using Age as continuous variable: Spearman’s rank-order correlation reveled that percentages of task repetitions had a tendency to decrease with age (r s = −.22, p = .056).

  4. When correcting for possible baseline differences between the groups by applying the logarithmic transformation of the RT data, which is a data correction method often used in studies on aging (cf. Kray & Lindenberger, 2000; Mayr, 2001), we observed that the three-way interaction between Task, Transition, and Age became marginally significant, with F(3,70) = 2.39; p = .076.

  5. The observations of age-related changes in switch costs and switch cost asymmetry was confirmed when using age as continuous variable: Spearman’s rank-order correlation reveled that while switch costs were stable across age (r s = .10, p = .376), switch cost asymmetry declined with age (r s = −.26, p = .023).


Download references


We thank Vincent Hoofs and Vera van ‘t Hoff for their tremendous help with data collection. Further, we thank Lea Ueberholz for her help with figures and tables and Lisa Hüther for proofreading the manuscript. Edita Poljac and Andrea Kiesel were supported by a Grant awarded to Andrea Kiesel within the Priority Program, SPP 1772 from the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG), Grant No. Ki1388-/7-1. Rianne Haartsen was supported by a grant from the European Community’s Horizon 2020 Program under Grant Agreement No. 642996 (BRAINVIEW). Ervin Poljac was supported by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie mobility programme of the EU FP7 (REA Grant Agreement No. 624080).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Edita Poljac.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare to have no conflict of interest. We agree to allow the journal to review the (raw) data if requested.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in the present study involve human participants and were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional, national research committee, and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standard.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants (and both their parents for the minors) included in the study.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Poljac, E., Haartsen, R., van der Cruijsen, R. et al. Task intentions and their implementation into actions: cognitive control from adolescence to middle adulthood. Psychological Research 82, 215–229 (2018).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: