Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Proof that aging hurts decision making? or Preconceived Notion Confirmed?

The title of the New York Times article is "Aging: Growing Older Is Found to Hurt Decision Making" By Eric Nagourney.
"As they grow older, even people who seem perfectly on top of things may have trouble making good decisions, a new study suggests."

I suggest that this study is idiotic.

"The researchers based their findings on a series of tests given to two groups of healthy people, one ages 26 to 55, the other 56 to 85. The goal was to see how well the older volunteers used the skills often demanded of them when making decisions in real life about activities like investments, insurance and estate planning.

“Such decisions would be a challenge even for young adults,” the researchers note in the current Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. But when age is taken into account, they said, along with the abundance of shady marketing schemes, the challenge becomes even greater.

Even someone with high intellect and good memory, the study said, may be undergoing changes in the prefrontal part of the brain that affects behavior. “The first manifestation of this cognitive decline may be exercising poor judgment and decision making in many important real-life matters,” the study said.

The researchers, led by Natalie L. Denburg of the University of Iowa, used a gambling-style test in which people draw from four different decks of cards. Two decks, not to mince words, are for suckers. They give short-term rewards but long-term losses. The other two decks do the opposite.

Most people draw a lot from the bad decks first and switch. In the study, many of the older participants stuck with the bad

Wait a minute. What exactly is the connection between deciding to stick with the "sucker deck" and decreased ability with decisions in real life about activities such as investments, insurance and estate planning? Do you mean that a 27-year-old who switches from the "bad deck" to the "good deck" is therefore better at estate planning?

Oh well. I suppose my inability to follow the rationale must be because of my age.


Chris Forbes said...

The problem with the researchers' conclusions that the older one gets the less "good" decisions one makes is that it ignores myriad other criteria for evaluating choice.

What is a "good' decision? What makes a decision "bad"? Should all decisions be judged (evaluated) on the basis of "objective" criteria? Who decides what the objective criteria are? Or can a subjective perspective be as valid? Does the perception of risk change with age (perhaps?)? And the fact of risk change with age (health, longevity, ability to find love or comfort or adequate financial resources)?

How to take into consideration that an young person's brain isn't completely developed until he or she is 25 (based on growth of neurons as well as moral capacity -- whatever that means)?

Judgment is a function of context, both external and internal. Choosing from a "sucker" deck may reflect an emotional sense of security with a first choice that provides much more reward than any financial payoff. Afterall you can't take your money to the grave.

If we fear that oldsters are being bilked of their money by unscrupulous crooks, then we ought to impose higher penalties on those kinds of crimes when the victims are older people. Bilking a 50 year old should perhaps not be as heavily punished than bilking an 80 year old.

The eighty year old person has a fundamental right to make decisions. Whether you and I judge them to be bad judgments is irrelevant. See my post on "The Right of Folly" on Epiphytic Notions (

sharryb said...

Loved the house of cards. So appropriate to the many "scientific conclusions" drawn about aging.

Judith Shapiro said...

Glad you noticed.