The unity and diversity of executive functions: A systematic review and re-analysis of latent variable studies

Justin E. Karr, Corson N. Areshenkoff, Philippe Rast, Scott M. Hofer, Grant L. Iverson, Mauricio A. Garcia-Barrera

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236 Citations (SciVal)


Confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) has been frequently applied to executive function measurement since first used to identify a three-factor model of inhibition, updating, and shifting; however, subsequent CFAs have supported inconsistent models across the life span, ranging from unidimensional to nested-factor models (i.e., bifactor without inhibition). This systematic review summarized CFAs on performance-based tests of executive functions and reanalyzed summary data to identify best-fitting models. Eligible CFAs involved 46 samples (N = 9,756). The most frequently accepted models varied by age (i.e., preschool = one/two-factor; school-age = three-factor; adolescent/ adult = three/nested-factor; older adult = two/three-factor), and most often included updating/ working memory, inhibition, and shifting factors. A bootstrap reanalysis simulated 5,000 samples from 21 correlation matrices (11 child/adolescent; 10 adult) from studies including the three most common factors, fitting seven competing models. Model results were summarized as the mean percent accepted (i.e., average rate at which models converged and met fit thresholds: CFI ≥ .90/RMSEA ≤ .08) and mean percent selected (i.e., average rate at which a model showed superior fit to other models: ΔCFI = .005/.010/ΔRMSEA ≤ -.010/-.015). No model consistently converged and met fit criteria in all samples. Among adult samples, the nested-factor was accepted (41-42%) and selected (8 -30%) most often. Among child/adolescent samples, the unidimensional model was accepted (32-36%) and selected (21-53%) most often, with some support for two-factor models without a differentiated shifting factor. Results show some evidence for greater unidimensionality of executive function among child/adolescent samples and both unity and diversity among adult samples. However, low rates of model acceptance/selection suggest possible bias toward the publication of well-fitting but potentially nonreplicable models with underpowered samples.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1147-1185
Number of pages39
JournalPsychological Bulletin
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Justin E. Karr is a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholar and thanks the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) for their support of his graduate studies. This study was completed in partial fulfillment of the requirements for his dissertation. Research reported in this publication was supported, in part, by NSERC Grant 418676-2012, Characteristics and Correlates of Intraindividual Variability in Ex- ecutive Control Processes, to Mauricio A. Garcia-Barrera; National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health under Award R01AG050720, Multi-Study Replication of the Predictive Value of Intra-Individual Variability on Long-Term Changes in Cognition, Health and Affect, to Philippe Rast; and Award P01AG043362 (2013–2018), Integrative Analysis of Longitudinal Studies of Aging and Dementia, to Scott M. Hofer. Grant L. Iverson acknowledges support from the United States Department of Defense as part of the TBI Endpoints Development Initiative with a grant entitled Development and Validation of a Cognition Endpoint for Traumatic Brain Injury Clinical Trials (subaward from W81XWH-14-2-0176). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of NSERC, the National Institutes of Health, or the Department of Defense.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 The Author(s).


  • Cognitive control
  • Confirmatory factor analysis
  • Executive function
  • Latent variable analysis
  • Systematic review

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology (all)


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