Risk, reward, and economic decision making in aging

J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2012 May;67(3):289-98. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbr099. Epub 2011 Sep 16.


Objectives: Older adults' decision quality is considered to be worse than that of younger adults. This age-related difference is often attributed to reductions in risk tolerance. Little is known about the circumstances that affect older adults' decisions and whether risk attitudes directly influence economic decisions. We measure the influence of risk attitudes on age-related differences in decision making in both nonsocial and social contexts.

Methods: Risk attitudes and economic decision making were measured in 30 healthy older adults and 29 healthy younger adults.

Results: Older adults report being less impulsive, sensation seeking and risk tolerant than younger adults. Age did not affect a measure of nonsocial economic decision making. Older adults were more likely to reject unfair divisions of money during an economic social-bargaining game and more likely to make equitable divisions of money during social-giving game. These age-related differences were determined in part by individuals' self-reported risk taking.

Discussion: We conclude that age-related differences in decision making are domain specific and that some social economic decision making is influenced by risk attitudes. Older adults are more risk avoidant, but this does not alter their willingness to wait for reward in a nonsocial context. Perceiving more risk is associated with an unwillingness to accept an unfair offer in social economic contexts and ultimately leads to poorer outcomes for older adults.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Attitude
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Decision Making*
  • Economics, Behavioral*
  • Female
  • Games, Experimental
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Reward
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Young Adult