decision making

When age helps decision making

October, 2011

New study modifies findings that younger adults are better decision-makers by showing older adults are better when the scenarios involve multiple considerations.

Research has shown that younger adults are better decision makers than older adults — a curious result. A new study tried to capture more ‘real-world’ decision-making, by requiring participants to evaluate each result in order to strategize the next choice.

This time (whew!), the older adults did better.

In the first experiment, groups of older (60-early 80s) and younger (college-age) adults received points each time they chose from one of four options and tried to maximize the points they earned.  For this task, the younger adults were more efficient at selecting the options that yielded more points.

In the second experiment, the rewards received depended on the choices made previously.  The “decreasing option” gave a larger number of points on each trial, but caused rewards on future trials to be lower. The “increasing option” gave a smaller reward on each trial but caused rewards on future trials to increase.  In one version of the test, the increasing option led to more points earned over the course of the experiment; in another, chasing the increasing option couldn’t make up for the points that could be accrued grabbing the bigger bite on each trial.

The older adults did better on every permutation.

Understanding more complex scenarios is where experience tells. The difference in performance also may reflect the different ways younger and older adults use their brains. Decision-making can involve two different reward learning systems, according to recent thinking. In the model-based system, a cognitive model is constructed that shows how various actions and their rewards are connected to each other. Decisions are made by simulating how one decision will affect future decisions. In the model-free system, on the other hand, only values associated with each choice are considered.

These systems are rooted in different parts of the brain. The model-based system uses the intraparietal sulcus and lateral prefrontal cortex, while the model-free system uses the ventral striatum. There is some evidence that younger adults use the ventral striatum (involved in habitual, reflexive learning and immediate reward) for decision-making more than older adults, and older adults use the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (involved in more rational, deliberative thinking) more than younger adults.

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Advice vs. experience: Genes predict learning style

May, 2011

Three gene variants governing dopamine response in the prefrontal cortex and the striatum affect how likely we are to persist with inaccurate beliefs in the face of contradictory experience.

We learn from what we read and what people tell us, and we learn from our own experience. Although you would think that personal experience would easily trump other people’s advice, we in fact tend to favor abstract information against our own experience. This is seen in the way we commonly distort what we experience in ways that match what we already believe. But there is probably good reason for this tendency (reflected in confirmation bias), even if it sometimes goes wrong.

But of course individuals vary in the extent to which they persist with bad advice. A new study points to genes as a critical reason. Different brain regions are involved in the processing of these two information sources (advice vs experience): the prefrontal cortex and the striatum. Variants in the genes DARPP-32 and DRD2 affect the response to dopamine in the striatum. Variation in the gene COMT, on the other hand, affects dopamine response in the prefrontal cortex.

In the study, over 70 people performed a computerized learning task in which they had to pick the "correct" symbol, which they learned through trial and error. For some symbols, subjects were given advice, and sometimes that advice was wrong.

COMT gene variants were predictive of the degree to which participants persisted in responding in accordance with prior instructions even as evidence against their correctness grew. Variants in DARPP-32 and DRD2 predicted learning from positive and negative outcomes, and the degree to which such learning was overly inflated or neglected when outcomes were consistent or inconsistent with prior instructions.

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Mindfulness meditation changes how decisions are made

May, 2011

Another recent meditation study has found that experienced Buddhist meditators use different brain regions than controls when making decisions in a ‘fairness’ game.

The study involved 26 experienced Buddhist meditators and 40 control subjects. Scans of their brains while they played the "ultimatum game," in which the first player proposes how to divide a sum of money and the second can accept or reject the proposal, revealed that the two groups engaged different parts of the brain when making these decisions.

Consistent with earlier studies, controls showed increased activity in the anterior insula (involved in disgust and emotional reactions to unfairness and betrayal) when the offers were unfair. However the Buddhist meditators showed higher activity instead in the posterior insula (involved in interoception and attention to the present moment). In other words, rather than dwelling on emotional reactions and imaginary what-if scenarios, the meditators concentrated on the interoceptive qualities that accompany any reward, no matter how small.

The meditators accepted unfair offers on more than half of the trials, whereas controls only accepted unfair offers on a quarter of the trials.

Moreover, those controls who did in fact play the game ‘rationally’ (that is, mostly accepting the unfair offers) showed activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, while rational meditators displayed increased activity in the somatosensory cortex and posterior superior temporal cortex.

The most intriguing thing about all this is not so much that regular meditation might change the way your brain works (although that is undeniably interesting), but as a more general demonstration that we can train our brain to work in different ways. Something to add to the research showing how brain regions shift in function in those with physical damage to their brains or sense organs (eg, in those who become blind).

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[2230] Kirk, U.
(2011).  Interoception drives increased rational decision-making in meditators playing the ultimatum game.
Frontiers in Decision Neuroscience. 5, 49 - 49.

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Older brains make good use of 'useless' information

January, 2010

A new study finds a decision-making advantage to the increased difficulty older brains have in filtering out irrelevant information.

It’s now well established that older brains tend to find it harder to filter out irrelevant information. But now a new study suggests that that isn’t all bad. The study compared the performance of 24 younger adults (17-29) and 24 older adults (60-73) on two memory tasks separated by a 10-minute break. In the first task, they were shown pictures overlapped by irrelevant words, told to ignore the words and concentrate on the pictures only, and to respond every time the same picture appeared twice in a row. The second task required them to remember how the pictures and words were paired together in the first task. The older adults showed a 30% advantage over younger adults in their memory for the preserved pairs. It’s suggested that older adults encode extraneous co-occurrences in the environment and transfer this knowledge to subsequent tasks, improving their ability to make decisions.

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[276] Campbell, K. L., Hasher L., & Thomas R. C.
(2010).  Hyper-binding: a unique age effect.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 21(3), 399 - 405.

Full text available at http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2010/01/15/0956797609359910.full

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Cognitive ability, not age, predicts risky decisions

July, 2010

A new study provides evidence that it's not age per se that affects the quality of decision-making, but individual differences in processing speed and memory.

A study involving 54 older adults (66-76) and 58 younger adults (18-35) challenges the idea that age itself causes people to become more risk-averse and to make poorer decisions. Analysis revealed that it is individual differences in processing speed and memory that affect decision quality, not age. The stereotype has arisen no doubt because more older people process slowly and have poorer memory. The finding points to the need to identify ways in which to present information that reduces the demand on memory or the need to process information very quickly, to enable those in need of such help (both young and old) to make the best choices. Self-knowledge also helps — recognizing if you need to take more time to make a decision.

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Memory replay not as simple as thought

March, 2010

Several reports have come out in recent years on how recent events replay in the hippocampus, a process thought to be crucial for creating long-term memories. Now a rat study suggests that these replays are not merely echoes of past events, but may include possible events that never happened.

Several reports have come out in recent years on how recent events replay in the hippocampus, a process thought to be crucial for creating long-term memories. Now a rat study suggests that these replays are not merely echoes of past events, but a dynamic process aimed at improving decision-making. Rather than being solely replays of recent or frequent paths through the maze, the replays were often paths that the rats had rarely taken or, in some cases, had never taken, as if the rats were trying to build maps to help them make better navigation decisions.

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