A Big Bonus of Aging: Better Decision-Making

Ah, the aging process. It’s a trade-off. A 65-year-old may have less energy than a 25-year-old, but there’s a consolation. Older adults, UT psychologists have found, tend to make smarter decisions.

Those ages 60 and above are better at strategizing their decisions, results indicate, than those in their late teens and early 20s, who tend to focus on instant gratification.

The study first examined 28 older adults and 28 younger counterparts as they made decisions in which they only needed to consider immediate rewards. Younger people made more efficient decisions in that experiment.

But in a second experiment, older subjects outperformed younger ones in choosing options that resulted in long-term gains, such as strategically storing the most amount of oxygen in “oxygen accumulators” on an imaginary space mission in Mars.

The findings are being published in Psychological Science. UT psychologists David Schnyer, Jennifer Pacheco, and Marissa Gorlick collaborated on the study.

The researchers believe their findings suggest physical differences in brain use between older and younger people. Younger people use the ventral striatum, a region of the brain associated with habit formation and immediate rewards, when they make decisions. As they get older, psychologists theorize, people compensate by using their prefrontal cortex, which controls rational and deliberate thoughts.

The researchers will test this theory with a new study that conducts neuroimaging as subjects of different ages make decisions.

Illustration by Mala Kumar


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