Decisions from experience: adaptive information search and choice in younger and older adults

Front Neurosci. 2012 Mar 14;6:36. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2012.00036. eCollection 2012.


In real-world decision making, choice outcomes, and their probabilities are often not known a priori but must be learned from experience. The dopamine hypothesis of cognitive aging predicts that component processes of experience-based decision making (information search and stimulus-reward association learning) decline with age. Many existing studies in this domain have used complex neuropsychological tasks that are not optimal for testing predictions about specific cognitive processes. Here we used an experimental sampling paradigm with real monetary payoffs that provided separate measures of information search and choice for gains and losses. Compared with younger adults, older adults sought less information about uncertain risky options. However, like younger adults, older participants also showed evidence of adaptive decision making. When the desirable outcome of the risky option was rare (p = 0.10 or 0.20), both age groups engaged in more information search and made fewer risky choices, compared with when the desirable outcome of the risky option was frequent (p = 0.80 or 0.90). Furthermore, loss options elicited more sampling and greater modulation of risk taking, compared with gain options. Overall, these findings support predictions of the dopamine hypothesis of cognitive aging, but they also highlight the need for additional research into the interaction of age and valence (gain vs. loss) on experience-based choice.

Keywords: aging; choice; dopamine; financial decisions; sampling paradigm.