Wednesday, August 24, 2011
ScienceDaily (Aug. 23, 2011) — We make decisions all our lives -- so you'd think we'd get better and better at it. Yet research has shown that younger adults are better decision makers than older ones. Some Texas psychologists, puzzled by these findings, suspected the experiments were biased toward younger brains.
So, rather than testing the ability to make decisions one at a time without regard to past or future, as earlier research did, these psychologists designed a model requiring participants to evaluate each result in order to strategize the next choice, more like decision making in the real world.
The results: The older decision makers trounced their juniors. The findings will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
"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," 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.
groups of older (ages 60 to early 80s) and younger (college-age)
"The younger adults were better when only the immediate rewards needed to be considered," says Worthy. "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."
The psychologists conjecture that these results are related to the ways we use our brains as we age. Younger people's choice making relies on the ventral striatum, which is related to habitual, reflexive learning and immediate rewards: impulsivity. But as this portion of the brain declines, older adults compensate by using their pre-frontal cortices, where more rational, deliberative thinking is controlled.
"More broadly, our findings suggest that older adults have learned a number of heuristics" -- reasoning methods -- "from their vast decision-making experience," says Worthy. Another word for this, which the psychologists use in their title, is wisdom. For older people, it may be nice to know that this sometimes-undervalued asset has been ratified in the lab.