Aging and loss decision making: increased risk aversion and decreased use of maximizing information, with correlated rationality and value maximization

Front Hum Neurosci. 2015 May 13;9:280. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00280. eCollection 2015.


We investigated how adult aging specifically alters economic decision-making, focusing on examining alterations in uncertainty preferences (willingness to gamble) and choice strategies (what gamble information influences choices) within both the gains and losses domains. Within each domain, participants chose between certain monetary outcomes and gambles with uncertain outcomes. We examined preferences by quantifying how uncertainty modulates choice behavior as if altering the subjective valuation of gambles. We explored age-related preferences for two types of uncertainty, risk, and ambiguity. Additionally, we explored how aging may alter what information participants utilize to make their choices by comparing the relative utilization of maximizing and satisficing information types through a choice strategy metric. Maximizing information was the ratio of the expected value of the two options, while satisficing information was the probability of winning. We found age-related alterations of economic preferences within the losses domain, but no alterations within the gains domain. Older adults (OA; 61-80 years old) were significantly more uncertainty averse for both risky and ambiguous choices. OA also exhibited choice strategies with decreased use of maximizing information. Within OA, we found a significant correlation between risk preferences and choice strategy. This linkage between preferences and strategy appears to derive from a convergence to risk neutrality driven by greater use of the effortful maximizing strategy. As utility maximization and value maximization intersect at risk neutrality, this result suggests that OA are exhibiting a relationship between enhanced rationality and enhanced value maximization. While there was variability in economic decision-making measures within OA, these individual differences were unrelated to variability within examined measures of cognitive ability. Our results demonstrate that aging alters economic decision-making for losses through changes in both individual preferences and the strategies individuals employ.

Keywords: aging; ambiguity; decision making; gains; losses; risk; strategy; uncertainty.