Individual Differences in Risky Decision-Making Among Seniors Reflect Increased Reward Sensitivity

Authors: James F. Cavanagh1,2, David Neville2, Michael X. Cohen2,3, Irene Van de Vijver2, Helga Harsay2, Poppy Watson2, Jessika I.  Buitenweg2, and K. Richard Ridderinkhof2

1 Brown University,  2 University of Amsterdam, 3 University of Arizona

Publication: Frontiers in Neuroscience

Year: 2012

Focus Area: Aging, DecisionMaking

Relevance: Understanding the decision-making process in older adults, especially with respect to risky decisions, may help identify vulnerabilities to fraud victimization.

Summary: This study used a computer-based game to investigate the effect of age on risky decision-making. Previous work on the cognitive changes associated with aging has been mixed with respect to risk aversion among seniors. Some studies have shown that seniors are risk averse on computer tasks like the one in the current study, but a recent review of the literature found that seniors are risk-seeking in most learned tasks.

The task used in current study is called the Balloon Analog Risk Task (BART), in which a balloon with a cash value is presented on a screen. Participants “pump” the balloon to increases the cash value and can cash-out at any time to move the cash into a virtual bank. But each successive pump increases the risk that the balloon will pop and erase all earnings.

The study found that seniors (age 60+) showed greater reward-based risk taking than younger participants (ages 18-26) in a high-risk scenario. Seniors were characterized by more popped balloons than young adults and showed heightened reward sensitivity. Still, there was no ultimate difference in earnings between seniors and young adults, so it is not possible to determine whether seniors were impulsive or were just following a different strategy.

Author Abstract/First Paragraph: Increasing age is associated with subtle but meaningful changes in decision-making. It is unknown, however, to what degree these psychological changes are reflective of age-related changes in decision quality. Here, we investigated the effect of age on latent cognitive processes associated with risky decision-making on the Balloon Analog Risk Task (BART). In the BART, participants repetitively inflate a balloon in order to increase potential reward. At any point, participants can decide to cash-out to harvest the reward, or they can continue, risking a balloon pop that erases all earnings. We found that among seniors, increasing age was associated with greater reward-related risk taking when the balloon has a higher probability of popping (i.e., a “high risk” condition). Cognitive modeling results from hierarchical Bayesian estimation suggested that performance differences were due to increased reward sensitivity in high risk conditions in seniors.

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