There is a misconception that cognitive abilities decline with age. Findings from a recent study on older adults’ decision-making abilities challenge this assumption.
As part of a 20-year study of Swedish older adults, 278 participants completed measures of decision-making at Time 1, then again five years later at Time 2. Participants were age 60 to 85 by Time 2, with an average of 71 years, and about half were women. At both time points, participants completed measures of fluid intelligence (i.e., thinking abstractly) and crystalized intelligence (i.e., accumulated knowledge), and the following three tests of decision-making: Resistance to framing tests one’s resistance to choosing a risky or safe option based on how the choice is framed (i.e., as a loss or gain). In tests of applying decision rules, participants are tasked with making the best choice of various options to reach a desired outcome. Resistance to sunk costs refers to the ability to ignore past investments when making decisions about future outcomes.
Results showed that changes in older adults’ decision-making ability were generally very small over the five-year period, even for the oldest participants. The only exception was that compared to younger age groups, those age 80 and better tended to decline more rapidly in resistance to framing. Otherwise, age was not associated with change in performance on applying decision rules or resistance to sunk costs. Decision-making performance at Time 1 was the strongest predictor of performance at Time 2, well beyond the impact of fluid and crystallized intelligence. This suggests that building decision-making skills in younger ages may protect against reduced ability in later years.
The study only focused on older adults, so it is not clear how these participants would compare to younger age groups. However, these are important findings that should help to instill more positive perceptions of aging for both older and younger adults. The researchers also noted that older participants tended to rely more on crystallized intelligence when making decisions, meaning older adults may be able to capitalize on their accumulated knowledge and experience when making decisions. However, more research is needed in this area.
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Del Missier F, Hansson P, Parker AM, Bruine de Bruin W, and Mäntylä T. Decision-making competence in older adults: A rosy view from a longitudinal investigation. Psychology and Aging (2020); 35(4), 553-564.