Gains & Losses: How Older & Younger Adults Weigh Their Options

Older and younger adults evaluate choices differently. A study that earned a 2020 Silver Innovative Research on Aging Award revealed how this evaluation can change based on how a task is framed.

Researchers recruited 97 younger adults (average age 24) and 92 older adults (average age 73) to participate in a series of choice trials. For each trial, participants were presented with a choice between performing an easy task of lower value or a difficult task of higher value. The probability that they would receive a reward for completing the task could also vary from low, medium, and high for each trial. For half of participants, the choices were presented in terms of the chance to gain a reward, and for the other half, choices were presented in terms of the chance to minimize a loss.

In the loss frame, for example, participants could have a 12% chance to lose only $1 for a high-effort task or lose $4 for a low-effort task. The task was either clicking a button rapidly (high-effort) or slowly (low-effort) in a given time frame.

Overall, older adults were less likely to choose high-effort options, compared to younger adults. This was particularly true at medium and high probability of reward. In other words, older adults were more selective in putting forth effort, while younger adults were more willing to risk no reward. However, there was one scenario that increased the likelihood that older adults would choose the high-effort option: when the choice was framed as minimizing a loss. Older adults were more likely to choose the high-effort option in the loss condition than in the gain condition. Younger adults showed the opposite preference.

In terms of motivating older adults to engage in more healthy behaviors, the right messaging is key. This study suggests that older adults may not be as interested in activities that could improve their health as they would be in activities that ward off dementia or chronic health conditions. Older adults were more selective in putting forth effort than younger adults, but they were more willing to choose high-effort to minimize a loss.


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Byrne KA and Anaraky RG. Strive to win or not to lose? Age-related differences in framing effects on effort-based decision-making. Journals of Gerontology: Series B (2019). Ahead of print.

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