Executive function (EF) refers to mental processes that are involved in the coordination of other cognitive skills. These skills include: attentional control, working memory, emotional regulation, and self-regulation.
EF allows us to ignore distractions and concentrate, plan for the future, juggle multiple tasks simultaneously, follow directions and control emotions.
Lack of executive functioning plays a role in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. At the same time, executive function is highly related to success in life, such as making and saving money, and even staying out of jail.
Executive functions develop across the lifespan, beginning in infancy. Depending on the specific skill being discussed, cognitive skills improve with age up until adulthood, and then show decline later in life.
Executive Function Definition
Researchers have used various terms to name executive function and identify what it does.
However, Denckla and Reiss (1997), suggested that:
Similarly, the University of Minnesota (2021) defines it as:
“…the cognitive abilities that help us plan, organize, reason, achieve goals, control emotions, and inhibit behavioral tendencies”
Executive Function Examples
- Planning: For example, planning the flights and hotels for your summer trip abroad.
- Attentional control: For example, the ability to maintain focus on reading your university textbook and drown out all distractions (see also: selective attention)
- Working memory: For example, glancing back and forth at a research paper and your computer screen as you type the term paper for your psychology class.
- Self-regulation: For example, controlling the amount of cake you eat. Even though you want to eat more cake, you know you need to regulate the amount of food you put in your mouth.
- Organizational skills: For example, being able to come up with a way to store physical objects in your house so you know how you’ll retrieve them quickly when you need them.
- Emotional regulation: For example, learning how to calm yourself down when someone does something to upset you.
- Prioritization: This refers to a person’s ability to sort tasks and information so you know what’s most important and what’s less important or should be done at a later date.
- Cognitive flexibility: Cognitive flexibility can be defined as the awareness of and ability to adjust your thinking to match various situations (Moore and Malinowski, 2009). It often involves overcoming functional fixedness. For example, if you don’t have a bowl to eat out of, perhaps eat out of a cooking pot instead.
- Reflection in the Moment: The self-awareness to reflect while doing a task is a sign that you are exercising your executive function.
- Time management: Your ability to know how much longer you have, how to split tasks into time chunks, and the subtle speeding-up or slowing-down to meet time commitments are all made possible by executive function.
- Metacognition: Metacognition refers to the ability to think about how you’re thinking. For example, you might be able to stop yourself when you’re falling into a negativity bias spiral.
- Multitasking / Task switching: While multitasking is a widely challenged concept, we might refer to task switching (the ability to jump from one task to another and back again at speed) as a benefit of having executive function.
- Response inhibition: This refers to your ability to hold back from saying something rude or doing something that is taboo or against established cultural norms, even if you at first want to do it!
- Attention to detail: A person’s ability to pay attention to the finer details of a task and get them right comes from their executive function.
- Project management: In order to successfully manage a product, you need executive function. Success in this task requires, for example, prioritization of tasks, distribution of resources, and setting goals and milestones.
- Effortful processing: A concept from psychology referring to tasks that require attention, active engagement, and sustained through to achieve a cognitive task.
1. Parenting Styles And Self-Regulation
There are at least 4 parenting styles practiced by caregivers: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and neglectful/nonconforming. Each style can have profound effects on the social and personality development of the child.
Some of the earliest research on parenting styles was conducted by developmental psychologist Dr. Diana Baumrind (1971).
Baumrind identified the authoritative parenting style as involving clear rules and explanations of why the rules exist. The authoritative parent is firm but also respectful of the child’s opinion, “She encourages verbal give and take, and shares with the child the reasoning behind her policy” (p.22).
As Baumrind stated, her research found that “Sons of Authoritative parents were significantly more Socially Responsible than sons of Authoritarian or Permissive parents, and somewhat more Friendly than sons of Nonconforming parents” (p. 91).
For daughters, the results showed that “…daughters were positively trained to be achievement-oriented, independent, and socially responsible” (p. 93).
2. Project Management: Planning
Project management involves coordinating the completion of a project by setting milestones, delegating tasks, and allocating resources. The project leader has to monitor the progress of the project, keep everything on schedule, make sure the team works as a cohesive unit, and ultimately produce a final deliverable.
All of that requires numerous executive function skills. For instance, setting milestones and allocating resources means being able to plan and anticipate needs that will occur weeks, sometimes months later.
While monitoring the progress of the project, the leader will need to juggle multiple tasks, prioritize needs, make judgments and problem-solve on a regular basis. That is all about working memory.
As if that wasn’t enough, managing the team can be the most challenging aspect of any project. That entails resolving conflicts, regulating the emotions of others, and regulating one’s own emotional reactions, such as frustration and loss of patience.
For the project to be carried out successfully, the project leader must possess self-regulation, planning, and problem-solving skills.
3. The Cocktail Party Effect: Attentional Control
Maybe one of the best illustrations of attentional control is commonly known as the “cocktail party effect.” This phenomenon refers to the ability to not be distracted by conversations occurring around us while we remain focused on only the one in which we are directly engaged.
The researcher Cherry originally coined the term in 1953: “How do we recognize what one person is saying when others are speaking at the same time (the “cocktail party problem”)?” (pp. 975-976).
The research included several experiments where participants listened to two different messages occurring simultaneously. This procedure is called the dichotic listening task today.
Participants were able to ignore the input of one conversation and focus their attention only on what they wanted.
This ability can be affected by several factors, such as the gender of the speaker, pitch and rate of speech, and direction the message is emanating.
The above video from BrainFacts explains the cocktail party affect and the different brain regions involved.
4. Inhibitory Control: Ways To Improve In Children
Inhibitory control is an executive function that involves blocking an impulsive or habitual behavior. In very young children, this may be one of the most difficult skills to master.
This creates a lot of frustrating moments for preschool and kindergarten teachers.
Teachers have developed lots of clever ways to help children learn inhibitory control and often take the form of a game.
For example, this teacher plays a game with the kids called Magic Word. The students must stay still until they hear the magic word, then they can run.
The simple activity in the video above lets the kids repeatedly jump until they hear the word “stop.”
And this game is called Opposites. It’s not easy at all.
The logic of these activities is that children will improve their inhibitory control through practice. Each time they play, they are making their executive control a little stronger.
5. Neuroimaging Research And Executive Function
There are several forms of technology that can reveal the inner workings of the cerebral cortex in amazing detail. The ability to see what is happening in the brain has led to many remarkable insights into human behavior.
This is also true when referring to executive function. Best and Miller (2010) provide a brief summary of key findings.
For instance, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is heavily involved in executive function. Although attentional control, and sensory and motor cortexes, mature steadily from infancy through middle childhood, full development of the PFC does not mature until later adolescence.
Maturation of the PFC is due to progressive and regressive changes in the structure of the brain. Progressive development involves neural growth, dendritic branching, and myelination.
Whereas regressive changes include the death of unused neurons and synaptic pruning, also a result of not being used.
Overall, both maturational processes connected to executive function are affected by the environment and the child’s experiences.
Executive function (EF) is a group of cognitive processes that are involved in several abilities, such as controlling one’s focus of attention or being able to control emotions and impulses.
The full range of executive function abilities are slower to develop than other cognitive skills such as memory or language development. In part, this is because executive function is located in the prefrontal cortex of the human brain. As this area matures, executive function becomes stronger.
EF is extremely important. It plays a key role in many practical applications such as coordinating a long-term project, being able to follow a conversation in a room full of chatter, and controlling one’s emotions in stressful situations.
Banich, M. T. (2009). Executive function: The search for an integrated account. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(2), 89-94.
Baumrind, D. (1966). Effects of authoritative parental control on child behavior.Child Development, 37(4), 887-907.
Baumrind, D. (1971). Current patterns of parental authority. Developmental Psychology Monographs, 4, 1-103.
Best, J. R., & Miller, P. H. (2010). A developmental perspective on executive function. Child Development, 81(6), 1641–1660. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01499.x
Cherry, E. C (1953). Some experiments on the recognition of speech, with one and with two ears. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 25(5), 975–979.
Denckla, M. B., & Reiss, A. L. (1997). Prefrontal-subcortical circuits in developmental disorders. In N. A. Krasnegor, G. R. Lyon, & P. S. Goldman-Rakic (Eds.), Development of the prefrontal cortex: Evolution, neurobiology, and behavior. Baltimore: Paul.
Müller, U., & Kerns, K. (2015). The development of executive function. In L. S. Liben, U. Müller, & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology and developmental science: Cognitive processes (pp. 571–623). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.