The older we get the more experience we gain, and that can only help in making better decisions that those who have not lived long enough to gain experience. With age comes experience – it’s a simple fact, and now there is research to back it up.  No matter how many previous studies are presented that say younger people are better decision-makers, there are millions of people who will disagree with them.

The discrepancies in the test results could simply be because the testing was based on the way the minds of young people process decision-making, using the part of the brain involved in habitual and reflective learning with immediate rewards (thru the ventral striatum), while older adults use more rational and deliberate thinking (that involved the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex).

Researchers believe that our brains change as we age. Young people are more into impulsive decisions that result in immediate gratification. As that portion of an adult  brain declines it compensates by utilizing portions that account for more rational and deliberate thinking.

“More broadly, our findings suggest that older adults have learned a number of heuristics”—reasoning methods—“from their vast decision-making experience,” says Darrell Worthy, of Texas A&M University, who conducted the study with Marissa Gorlick, Jennifer Pacheco, David Schnyer, and Todd Maddox, all at the University of Texas at Austin. “We found that older adults are better at evaluating the immediate and delayed benefits of each option they choose from. They are better at creating strategies in response to the environment.” Their findings will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Previous experiments have shown that younger adults did better at making decisions than older people, which seemed to be puzzling to Worthy and his team, since people make decisions all their lives, and odds are they get better at it with experience. Why then were these studies showing just the opposite? They suspected the previous studies may have been biased toward younger brains, so they decided to take a different approach to the question.

Instead of testing the ability to make decisions one at a time, with immediate results, they designed a model that required participants to evaluate each result in order to form a new strategy by which to proceed – more like “real world” decision-making.

The first experiment put participants into two groups: the older adults were in their 60’s to early 80’s; the younger adults were college age.  The groups received points each time they chose from one of four options and tried to maximize the points they earned.  In this the younger adults, used to playing video games that yielded higher points, were more efficient.

In the second experiment, rewards were based on the choices made earlier. The researchers used a more complex way to determine scores. On one trial they use a “decreasing option” system, where a larger number of points were given on each trial, but lowered the rewards on future trials. In another trial they used the “increasing option,” which gave a smaller reward on each trial but caused rewards on future trials to increase.  In one version of the test, the increasing option led to more points earned over the course of the experiment; in another, chasing the increasing option couldn’t make up for the points that could be accrued grabbing the bigger bite on each trial. In this experiment, older adults scored better in every modification.

Experience seemed to win out when it came to understanding more complex scenarios. The teams theorized that the differences lay in how the brain processes information as we age.

Two different reward systems may be involved in decision-making. In the “model-based system,” recent studies have found that various actions and their rewards are connected to each other, and that one decision can affect future decisions.  On the other hand, in the “model-free” system only values associated with each choice are considered.

According to Worthy, “We found that younger adults performed equivalently in the experiment, but older adults were more adept at adjusting their strategy to fit the goals of the task.’  He added, “The younger adults were better when only the immediate rewards needed to be considered. But the second experiment required developing a theory about how rewards in the environment were structured. The more experience you have in this, the better you are better at it.”

For older people, it may be nice to know that this sometimes-undervalued asset has been ratified in the lab. It contradicts the stereotype of elderly people losing their mental edge.

Researchers concluded that regardless of how long pensioners take in coming to a decision, it is generally a better one than a choice made in youthful haste.

This is indeed encouraging for older adults, to know that their aging does not effect their ability to make good decisions. Decision-making is only a portion of your memory and processing of your brain.




Mempowered  – When age helps decision making: