Explaining Adult Age Differences in Decision-Making Competence

Published in: Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, v. 25, no. 4, Oct. 2012, p. 352-360

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2010

by Wandi Bruine de Bruin, Andrew M. Parker, Baruch Fischhoff

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Studies on aging-related changes in decision making report mixed results. Some decision-making skills decline with age, while others remain unchanged or improve. Because fluid cognitive ability (e.g., reasoning, problem solving) deteriorates with age, older adults should perform worse on decision-making tasks that tap fluid cognitive ability. However, performance on some decision-making tasks may require experience, which increases with age. On those tasks, older adults should perform at least as well as younger adults. These two patterns emerged in correlations between age and component tasks of Adult Decision-Making Competence (A-DMC), controlling for demographic variables. First, we found negative relationships between age and performance on two tasks (Resistance to Framing, Applying Decision Rules), which were mediated by fluid cognitive ability. Second, performance on other tasks did not decrease with age (Consistency in Risk Perception, Recognizing Age-group Social Norms) or improved (Under/Overconfidence, Resistance to Sunk Costs). In multivariate analyses, performance on these tasks showed independent positive relationships to both age and fluid cognitive ability. Because, after controlling for fluid cognitive ability, age becomes a proxy for experience, these results suggest that experience plays no role in performing the first set of tasks, and some role in performing the second set of tasks. Although not all decision-making tasks showed age-related declines in performance, older adults perceived themselves as worse decision makers. Self-ratings of decision-making competence were related to fluid cognitive ability and to decision-making skills that decreased with age?but not to decision-making skills that increased with age.

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