Does aging affect decision making?

June 1, 2015, University of Basel

Aging is associated with significant decline in cognitive functions. But does this translate into poorer decision making? Psychologists from the University of Basel and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development report that in simple decision situations, older adults perform just as well as younger adults. However, according to their study published in the academic journal Cognition, aging may affect decision performance in more complex decision situations.

Important decisions in politics and economics are often made by older people: According to Forbes magazine, the average age of the world's most powerful people in 2013 was 61 years. As populations across the globe age, the selection of older individuals into such powerful roles may even be further intensified.

Aging is associated with a significant decline in so-called fluid cognitive abilities, for example, the ability to store information in memory or to quickly solve cognitive problems. Fluid cognitive abilities may play a role particularly in "decisions from experience", that is, when the potential consequences of available options is not conveniently summarized but has to be acquired through information search (exploration) and learning. Thus, how do older in comparison to younger adults fare when making decisions from experience?

Choosing between lotteries

Psychologists from the University of Basel and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin conducted three studies in which younger (average age: 24 years) and (71 years) repeatedly made decisions from experience- either on a computer in the lab (study 1) or on an iPad at home (study 2).

In each lottery, participants had the choice between two options, which were presented as two unlabeled boxes on the screen. Before making a consequential decision, participants could sample the possible gains and losses of each option by clicking onto the two boxes, as often as they liked. They were thus able to learn which option was better, promising the higher gain or the smaller loss in the long run. Surprisingly, older adults put the same amount of effort into exploring the options and chose the advantageous options as often as .

"Simple but successful" learning strategies

The psychologists then analyzed participants' learning processes using computer simulations and found a possible explanation for their results: "Younger as well as older adults are using relatively simple but successful learning strategies", explains first-author Dr. Renato Frey. These strategies remain relatively unaffected by reduced fluid . Only in a third study where participants no longer had to choose between two but four or up to eight options, did the researchers observe a decline in decision-making performance by older adults. Overall, the results suggest that simple strategies can be useful to aging decision makers even though such strategies may not fully compensate for age-related cognitive decline in very complex decision situations.

Explore further: Researcher seeks answers to cognitive decline as we age

More information: Frey, R., Mata, R., & Hertwig, R. (2015). The role of cognitive abilities in decisions from experience: Age differences emerge as a function of choice set size. Cognition, 142, 60-80. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.05.004

Related Stories

Researcher seeks answers to cognitive decline as we age

February 13, 2015
Aging is not kind to the brain. Memory, for example, begins to fail and multitasking abilities start to deteriorate. But are there ways to slow the natural process of cognitive decline? And if so, how do they work?

Age-related changes in the brain can have significant impact on individuals, society

April 14, 2015
Gradual and variable change in mental functions that occurs naturally as people age, not as part of a neurological disease such as Alzheimer's disease, is one of the most challenging health issues encountered by older adults, ...

Debunking aging myths in financial decisions

January 14, 2015
Growing older leaves many with a gloomy prognosis, namely that cognitive aging will slow the mind and the ability to make decisions. However, when it comes to making financial decisions, many baby boomers would be pleased ...

Older is wiser, at least economically

September 24, 2013
The brains of older people are slowing but experience more than makes up for the decline, a University of California, Riverside assistant professor of management and several colleagues found when asking the participants a ...

School segregation still impacts African-Americans' minds decades later

May 11, 2015
As the nation observes the May 17 anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that ended racial segregation in public schools, a new study has found that desegregated schooling is tied to better performance for certain cognitive ...

Study finds cardiorespiratory fitness contributes to successful brain aging

April 27, 2015
Cardiorespiratory fitness may positively impact the structure of white matter in the brains of older adults. These results suggest that exercise could be prescribed to lessen age-related declines in brain structure.

Recommended for you

Self-compassion may protect people from the harmful effects of perfectionism

February 21, 2018
Relating to oneself in a healthy way can help weaken the association between perfectionism and depression, according to a study published February 21, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Madeleine Ferrari from Australian ...

Researchers uncover novel mechanism behind schizophrenia

February 21, 2018
An international team of researchers led by a Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine scientist has uncovered a novel mechanism in which a protein—neuregulin 3—controls how key neurotransmitters are released ...

How people cope with difficult life events fuels development of wisdom, study finds

February 21, 2018
How a person responds to a difficult life event such as a death or divorce helps shape the development of their wisdom over time, a new study from Oregon State University suggests.

When it comes to our brains, there's no such thing as normal

February 20, 2018
There's nothing wrong with being a little weird. Because we think of psychological disorders on a continuum, we may worry when our own ways of thinking and behaving don't match up with our idealized notion of health. But ...

Jymmin: How a combination of exercise and music helps us feel less pain

February 20, 2018
Pain is essential for survival. However, it could also slow the progress of rehabilitation, or in its chronic form could become a distinct disorder. How strongly we feel it, among other factors, depends on our individual ...

College roommates underestimate each other's distress, new psychology research shows

February 19, 2018
College roommates are sensitive to their roommates' distress but tend to underestimate the level of distress being experienced by others, finds a newly published study from New York University psychology researchers.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.