Your Grandparents Are Right

Our society concentrates on youth, and tends to dismiss the experience and value an older person can give. Older people are discriminated against for jobs, because younger people feel they are relics whose time has passed, and their brains and memory are slowing down as well.   For a while scientific studies (probably conducted by college students) tended to support this theory.

New research now seems to support the fact that, although older brains change as people age it doesn’t mean they aren’t still better when it comes to experienced decisions. As we age we also gain experience, it’s a fact of life. It’s also a fact that aging brains lose many of their original connections and their brains have to adjust by making new ones. Reflexes are slower, but slow doesn’t mean stalled out.

Younger people tend to be more impulsive, and are always looking for instant gratification. Older people have learned that the tortoise wins the race, so although they may not be as quick on their feet they don’t lie down to rest before the race is over.

In previous tests, young people did better as decision makers and their older counterparts. These results could be due to the fact that young people use a different part of the brain when making decisions. They go for the immediate rewards obtained from habitual and reflective learning (thru the ventral striatum). Older adults are more deliberate and rational (involving the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex).

“More broadly, our findings suggest that older adults have learned a number of heuristics (reasoning methods) from their vast decision-making experience,” says Darrell Worthy, of Texas A&M University. Worthy, along with colleagues all from the University of Texas at Austin: Marissa Gorlick; Jennifer Pacheco; David Schnyder; and Todd Maddox worked on the study that was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. “We found that older adults are better at evaluating the immediate and delayed benefits of each option they choose from. They are better at creating strategies in response to the environment,” says Worthy.

The researchers found previous findings puzzling, since people are making decisions every day of their life. This amount of experience has got to be fine-tuned by the time they are older. Most older people you meet are able to provide valuable insight from experience alone, not to mention education. Then why were the previous studies showing just the opposite? Believing previous studies may have shown a bias toward younger brains, they thought that if they approached to the question differently they would get a more balanced result. The team then designed a model for their study that required each participant to evaluate the decisions they made, making it more like the “real world” experience and not geared toward immediate gratification.

In the first experiment, volunteers were divided into two groups: adults over 60, and college age adults. Each group received points every time they chose from one of four options with different point value. The younger ones tried for the options that held the most point value, thus getting gratification from the higher points. In this experiment the younger ones were more efficient, probably due to playing video games that racked up points to show who was better.

The second experiment used a more complex scoring system and based the rewards on choices made in the earlier experiment. For example: one trial used a “decreasing option” system, where a larger number of points were given on each trial, but lowered the rewards on future trials. In another trial they used the “increasing option,” where smaller rewards were given 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; while in another, chasing the increasing option couldn’t make up for the points that could be accrued grabbing the bigger bite on each trial. In this experiment, older adults scored better in every modification.

In the end, experience won out when it came to understanding more complex scenarios. The teams came to the consensus that the differences are due to how the brain processes information as we age, and that two different reward systems may be involved in decision-making.

Recent studies have found that in the “model-based system,” different actions and rewards are connected to each other, and that future decisions can come from one decision made previously. In the “model-free” system, decisions are made on the value received.

According to Worthy, “We found that younger adults performed equivalently in the experiment, but older adults were more adept at adjusting their strategy to fit the goals of the task.’   He added, “The younger adults were better when only the immediate rewards needed to be considered. But the second experiment required developing a theory about how rewards in the environment were structured. The more experience you have in this, the better you are better at it.”

This study contradicts previous ones, and shows that older people may be slowing down, but they haven’t lost their mental edge when it comes to making better decisions, based on sound facts and previous experience always outbeat snap decisions based on what came result. This should serve as a reinforcement that wisdom does come with age.

This is Ron White, memory keynote speaker. Decision-making is only a portion of your memory and processing of your brain, but it is important. Older adults should be encouraged by this study.

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