The adage “with age comes wisdom” may actually ring true, according to psychologists at Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin.
By examining how aging affects decision-making, researchers concluded that older adults use the experience in decision-making accumulated over their lifetime to determine the long-term utility and not just the immediate benefit before making a choice. However, younger adults tend to focus their decision-making on instant gratification, says Darrell Worthy, a professor of psychology at Texas A&M.
A paper summarizing the researchers’ experiments and findings has been accepted for publication in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science.
“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,” Worthy explains. “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, and the other was the decreasing option, which decreased awards in the future, he added. However, the decreasing option also provided a larger immediate reward on each trial, so participants had to juxtapose the short-term benefits of the decreasing option with the long-term benefits of the increasing option.
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 said. “However, older adults tended to figure out which one — the increasing option or decreasing option — was better each situation, so they performed better in both of those tasks.”
Despite the well-documented neural declines of older adults, Worthy said the expertise these individuals gain from having made numerous decisions throughout their entire lives allows for them to make better decisions in many real-world contexts. This is especially true, he continued, when present decisions interact with future decisions, creating a sequence of decisions that often is more influential on outcomes than a solitary choice.
The results of the study have prompted Worthy and his colleagues to investigate other aspects of the effects of aging on decision-making.
The Texas A&M and UT research team is also conducting an fMRI study, where participants’ brains are scanned as they engage in the dynamic decision-making tasks used in the study to determine the neural mechanisms behind the behavioral results. Worthy said the team is hoping to 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 explained. “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, and the theory Worthy and his colleagues are investigating says that 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 in the brain.
“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,” he continued.
Compared to younger adults, older adults seem to develop more specific hypotheses about how current choices affect future possibilities, and in turn, they act on these hypotheses to make the best decisions, Worthy added. This idea is similar to real-world situations where current choices, like what to major in during college or which retirement options to invest in, affect what people are able to do in the future.
The overall goal of the researchers is to understand decision-making, Worthy said, and age is a ubiquitous variable among decision-makers.