Older adults make smarter choices

TEXAS A&M (US) — When making decisions, older adults take into consideration the long-term pros and cons, while younger people look for instant gratification, a new study shows.

“What we did, and what was new about this experiment, was that we had people perform tasks where the choices they made influenced what rewards were available in the future,” says Darrell Worthy, professor of psychology at Texas A&M University.

“Specifically, participants performed decision-making tasks where they had two options, and each option differently affected the rewards available in future trials.”

One option was called the increasing option because it increased rewards in future trials.

The other was the decreasing option, which decreased awards in the future, but offered a larger immediate reward, so participants had to choose short-term benefits of the decreasing option with long-term ones of the increasing option.

The findings will be published in the journal Psychological Science.

Younger and older adults performed two variants of this experiment, one where the increasing option was better in the long-run and one where the decreasing option was actually better in the long-run as well, meaning the gain from selecting the increasing option repeatedly would never make up for how much better the decreasing option was.

“What we found was that between those two situations, younger adults performed about the same, so they selected both options equally,” Worthy says. “Older adults tended to figure out which one—the increasing option or decreasing option—was better in each situation, so they performed better in both of those tasks.”

The expertise older adults gain from having made numerous decisions throughout their entire lives allows for them to make better decisions in real-world contexts, he says. This is especially true, when present decisions interact with future decisions, creating a sequence that often is more influential on outcomes than a solitary choice.

The researchers are also conducting an fMRI study, where participants’ brains are scanned as they engage in dynamic decision-making tasks to determine the neural mechanisms behind the behavioral results in hopes they will find support for an aging theory involving the use of different parts of the brain.

“Aging leads to a lot of decline in different neural areas, and one of those areas of decline is called the ventral striatum,” he says. “It’s an area deep in the brain that’s involved in habit formation and procedural learning, so things like how to ride a bike or to remember to brush your teeth every morning are learned by this system. That area is also implicated in assigning value to the immediate rewards you receive. Any time you are rewarded or punished, the area becomes activated.”

The ventral striatum declines due to aging. The theory in question says the frontal areas of the brain, which are used in more conscious, deliberative processing, become more broadly activated in older adults to make up for other age-related declines, he says.

“We think that younger adults might be using their ventral striatum more, since they are just making decisions based on the rewards they receive immediately, whereas older adults may be using their prefrontal cortices more, or a broader network of the frontal portions of the brain, rather than just acting in response to the immediate rewards they receive.”

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