For years, researchers have been puzzled by study findings that showed younger adults to be better decision-makers than older individuals.
Experts suspected the findings resulted from experimental designs that tested the ability to make decisions one at a time without regard to the past or future, thus negating the influence of experience and judgment.
In a new study, 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.
Using this methodology, older decision makers clearly made better choices. The findings will be discussed in an upcoming issue of the journal 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,” said psychologist Dr. Darrell Worthy, of Texas A&M University.
Researchers used two experiments to determine how younger adults and then older adults make decisions.
In the trials, younger adults scored better when only immediate rewards needed to be considered. In other situations where successful decision-making was based upon the need to develop a theory of how rewards in the environment were structured, older adults were clearly superior.
Researchers believe this difference reflects the ways we use our brains as we age.
Younger people make choices using the area of the brain called the ventral striatum – a region 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,” said Worthy.
In other words, older adults have developed wisdom – a talent that has now been confirmed in a lab setting.