Exploratory Decision-Making as a Function of Lifelong Experience, Not Cognitive Decline

Our latest aging study has just been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The paper reports work done with Nate Blanco, Kirsten Smayda and Todd Maddox at the University of Texas, Austin, Bradley Love (University College London) and Ross Otto (New York University). It helps illustrate just how important computational models are to our understanding of changes in behavior across the adult lifespan, showing why it makes no sense to talk about processing declines in the absence of models of what is being processed, and how.

Here’s the abstract:

Older adults perform worse than younger adults in some complex decision-making scenarios, which is commonly attributed to age-related declines in striatal and frontostriatal processing. Recently, this popular account has been challenged by work that considered how older adults’ performance may differ as a function of greater knowledge and experience, and by work showing that, in some cases, older adults outperform younger adults in complex decision-making tasks. In light of this controversy, we examined the performance of older and younger adults in an exploratory choice task that is amenable to model-based analyses and ostensibly not reliant on prior knowledge. Exploration is a critical aspect of decision-making poorly understood across the life span. Across 2 experiments, we addressed (a) how older and younger adults differ in exploratory choice and (b) to what extent observed differences reflect processing capacity declines. Model-based analyses suggested that the strategies used by the 2 groups were qualitatively different, resulting in relatively worse performance for older adults in 1 decision- making environment but equal performance in another. Little evidence was found that differences in processing capacity drove performance differences. Rather the results suggested that older adults’ performance might result from applying a strategy that may have been shaped by their wealth of real-word decision-making experience. While this strategy is likely to be effective in the real world, it is ill suited to some decision environments. These results underscore the importance of taking into account effects of experience in aging studies, even for tasks that do not obviously tap past experiences.