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Decision-making in older adults

Strategies we use when deciding change as we age
November 19, 2021
By Alexa Ruel, MA 18

Alexa Ruel is a doctoral candidate in experimental psychology at Concordia and is a 2021 Public Scholar.

Imagine that you’re standing at a self-serve ticket vending machine in a train station. To buy the correct ticket, you must make a series of decisions among the options presented in each successive menu.

Given that even younger adults often struggle with the sequential decisions required to navigate such a device, it’s not surprising that a lot of older adults frequently opt to buy their ticket from a teller instead.

One explanation for this is that as we age, we experience cognitive decline that impacts our learning and decision-making abilities. Such decline is particularly relevant to situations in which we must keep track of several options to choose from while simultaneously planning a future decision — as is the case when buying a ticket from a machine. You have to keep track of and choose between various ticket types, travel dates and departure times in successive menus all while keeping in mind your main goal, which could be to travel home for an upcoming holiday, for example.

As a researcher in the Lifespan and Decision-Making Laboratory (LDMlab) at Concordia, I use electroencephalography (EEG) and computational modelling to study the neural mechanisms that support changes in decision-making strategies across a lifespan. To do so, I have younger and older adults complete various decision-making tasks that resemble video games. As they complete each task, the EEG allows me to record their neural activity — which is analyzed in parallel with their choices — to understand the strategies that inform their decisions under various conditions.

One main finding from my research is that older adults seem to have a hard time mentally representing structures that are partially observable, such as the menus of a ticket vending machine where the relationship between each menu is only observable once you start navigating through them.

Without the ability to represent these partially observable structures and the relationship between them in the mind’s eye, it becomes very difficult to engage in goal-directed decision-making. Therefore, older adults who struggle to do so are often seen relying on simpler strategies instead, such as buying their ticket from a human, rather than a machine. There is nothing wrong with this strategy, yet in a case where the only option is to use a self-serve ticket machine, the deficit that informs it becomes problematic.

We all make decisions every day. Unsurprisingly, the strategies we use when deciding change as we age.

My research will allow us to find solutions for older adults who have difficulties engaging in goal-directed decision-making. By understanding how older adults make decisions, we can improve their environment, ensuring that no one ever gets frustrated by the task of buying a train ticket.

In the long term, my research aims to ensure that older adults don’t encounter these problems simply because we have yet to consider their abilities when creating tools and technologies aimed at making a task simpler, not more complex.

Alexa Ruel is the founder and coordinator of the Concordia Journal of Accessible Psychology (CJAP), as well as the co-founder and coordinator of the Concordia Journal of Psychology and Neuroscience (CJPN).

Ruel’s doctoral research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Concordia.

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