A cursory look at the decision making literature initially suggests that older adults demonstrate less effective decision making when the decisionmaking situation is novel and unfamiliar to them (Chasseigne et al., 1997; Finucane et al., 2002; Mutter & Pliske, 1994; Sanfey & Hastie, 2000). For
example, older adults have difficulty in deciding how water temperature is determined from numerous gauges on a cellar boiler (Chasseigne et al.,
1997) . Older adults also have difficulty making decisions when under time pressure (Johnson, 1990). When decision making involves a high degree of working memory capacity (e. g., a lot of information must be held in memory simultaneously in order to make quick decisions), older adults do not perform as well (Peters et al., 2007; Sanfey & Hastie, 2000). However, everyday decision making does not necessarily reflect the firm time constraints and cognitive demands that are studied in the above research. Let’s examine other types of situations.
A number of different types of everyday decisionmaking situations have been examined across the adult life span. These range from assessing automobiles for future purchase (Johnson, 1990; Lambert – Pandraud, Laurent, & Lapersonne, 2005) and treatment decisions for breast cancer (Meyer et al., 1994; Meyer et al., 2007), to retirement and financial planning (Hershey, Jacobs-Lawson et al., 2003; Walsh & Hershey, 1993). Findings are quite comparable. Younger adults are much quicker at coming to a decision. Older adults search for less information in order to arrive at a decision, require less information to arrive at a decision, and rely on easily accessible information (Mata, Schooler, & Rieskamp, 2007; Reed, Mikels, & Simon, 2008). However, the important point here is that despite these age – related characteristics, the literature suggests no age differences in the quality of the decisions made in such everyday contexts (Chen & Sun, 2003).
When decision making taps into relevant experience or knowledge, older adults tend to be just as effective in making decisions as younger adults or even better at it. For example, experience tends to make older adults less susceptible to irrational biases in their decision making in comparison to younger adults (Tentori et al., 2001). It may be that when decisions are personally relevant it bolsters older adults’ attentional focus on important cues resulting in efficient decisions (Hess et al., 2005; Meyer et al., 2007).
These findings suggest some interesting directions for future research. Is it that older adults try to conserve diminishing resources when making decisions,
and thus search for less information? Are there cohort differences in the belief in powerful others or trusting authority (therefore less need for deliberation)? For example, older cohorts are socialized to believe in the ultimate word of the physician and not question his or her opinion. Or do older adults draw on a rich and elaborate knowledge system that makes them somewhat “experts” in particular areas of decision making? In this case, experts do not exhaustively search for information given their sophisticated knowledge base. All these possible explanations need to be explored to yield a better understanding of everyday decision making in older adults.
An area that has received considerable attention is the role emotion plays in age differences in decision making. Negative emotions such as anger and fear can be evoked when making a decision. For example, health-related decisions are particularly loathsome because they can involve threat, are high in personal relevance, and are of high importance to the individual (Lockenhoff & Carstensen, 2007). In support of the idea that older adults are motivated to reduce the experience of negativity and enhance the experience of positivity (Carstensen & Mikels,
2005) , research shows that older adults focused more on positive information when making a health decision (Lockenhoff & Carstensen, 2007). Interestingly Kim and colleagues (2008) found that older adults focused more on positive information than younger adults did when making a decision only when they were asked to explicitly evaluate their options before making a choice. If not asked to do so, there were no age differences in decision making.
Furthermore, these researchers asked participants how satisfied they were with their decision. For the older adult group that was asked to evaluate their options, their focus on the positive and their satisfaction with their decision remained high over two weeks. In other words, older adults’ high level of satisfaction with their decisions increased and persisted over two weeks by simply asking them to spend a few minutes evaluating their options. This did not happen for younger adults. Kim et al. (2008) comment on how advertisements or interventions that have a positive impact on one age group may have a completely different impact on another.