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New lab tests measure “wisdom”

Aug. 23, 2011
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Re­search­ers have de­vel­oped what they call some of the lab­o­r­a­to­ry tests that meas­ure “wis­dom.”

We make de­ci­sions all our lives—so you'd think we'd get bet­ter and bet­ter at it. Yet past re­search has shown that young­er adults are bet­ter de­ci­sion mak­ers than old­er ones. Some Tex­as psy­chol­o­gists, puz­zled by these find­ings, sus­pected the ex­pe­ri­ments were bi­ased to­ward young­er brains.

So, rath­er than test­ing the abil­ity to make de­ci­sions one at a time with­out re­gard to past or fu­ture, as ear­li­er re­search did, these psy­chol­o­gists de­signed a mod­el re­quir­ing par­ti­ci­pants to eval­u­ate each re­sult in or­der to strate­gize the next choice, more like de­ci­sion mak­ing in the real world.

The re­sults: The old­er de­ci­sion mak­ers trounced their ju­niors. The find­ings are to be pub­lished in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, a jour­nal of the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based 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,” said Dar­rell Wor­thy of Tex­as A&M Uni­vers­ity, who con­ducted the study with col­leagues at the Uni­vers­ity of Tex­as at Aus­tin.

In a first ex­pe­ri­ment, groups of old­er (ages 60 to early 80s) and young­er (college-age) adults re­ceived points each time they chose from one of four op­tions and tried to max­im­ize the points they earned. In this por­tion, the young­er adults were more ef­fi­cient at se­lect­ing the op­tions that yielded more points.

In the sec­ond ex­pe­ri­men­t—the set­up was a sham test of two "oxy­gen ac­cu­mu­la­tors"
on Mars—the re­wards re­ceived de­pended on the choices made pre­vi­ously. The "de­creas­ing op­tion" gave a larg­er num­ber of points on each tri­al, but caused re­wards on fu­ture tri­als to be low­er. The "in­creas­ing op­tion" gave a smaller re­ward 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; in an­oth­er, chas­ing the in­creas­ing op­tion could­n't make up for the points that could be ac­crued grab­bing the big­ger bite on each tri­al.

The old­er adults did bet­ter on eve­ry ver­sion, the re­search­ers said.

"The young­er adults were bet­ter when only the im­me­di­ate re­wards needed to be con­sid­ered," said Wor­thy. "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."

The psy­chol­o­gists con­jec­ture that these re­sults are re­lat­ed to the ways we use our brains as we age. Young­er peo­ple's choice mak­ing re­lies on the ven­tral stria­tum, which is re­lat­ed to ha­bit­u­al, re­flex­ive learn­ing and im­me­di­ate re­wards: im­pul­si­vity. But as this por­tion of the brain de­clines, old­er adults com­pen­sate by us­ing their pre-frontal cor­ti­ces, where more ra­tional, de­lib­er­a­tive think­ing is con­trolled.

"More broad­ly, our find­ings sug­gest that old­er adults have learn­ed a num­ber of heuris­tic­s"—rea­soning meth­ods—"from their vast de­ci­sion-mak­ing ex­perience," said Wor­thy. An­oth­er word for this, ac­cord­ing to the psy­chol­o­gists, is wis­dom. For old­er peo­ple, it may be nice to know that this some­times-under­valued as­set has been rat­i­fied in the lab.


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Researchers have developed what they call some of the laboratory tests that measure “wisdom.” We make decisions all our lives—so you'd think we'd get better and better at it. Yet past research has shown that younger adults are better decision makers than older ones. Some Texas psychologists, puzzled by these findings, suspected the experiments were biased toward younger brains. So, rather than testing the ability to make decisions one at a time without regard to past or future, as earlier research did, these psychologists designed a model requiring participants to evaluate each result in order to strategize the next choice, more like decision making in the real world. The results: The older decision makers trounced their juniors. The findings are to be 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 Darrell Worthy, of Texas A&M University, who conducted the study with colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin. In a first experiment, groups of older (ages 60 to early 80s) and younger (college-age) adults received points each time they chose from one of four options and tried to maximize the points they earned. In this portion, the younger adults were more efficient at selecting the options that yielded more points. In the second experiment—the setup was a sham test of two "oxygen accumulators" on Mars—the rewards received depended on the choices made previously. The "decreasing option" gave a larger number of points on each trial, but caused rewards on future trials to be lower. The "increasing option" gave a smaller reward 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; in another, chasing the increasing option couldn't make up for the points that could be accrued grabbing the bigger bite on each trial. The older adults did better on every version, the researchers said. "The younger adults were better when only the immediate rewards needed to be considered," says Worthy. "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." The psychologists conjecture that these results are related to the ways we use our brains as we age. Younger people's choice making relies on the ventral striatum, which is related to habitual, reflexive learning and immediate rewards: impulsivity. But as this portion of the brain declines, older adults compensate by using their pre-frontal cortices, where more rational, deliberative thinking is controlled. "More broadly, our findings suggest that older adults have learned a number of heuristics"—reasoning methods—"from their vast decision-making experience," says Worthy. Another word for this, which the psychologists use in their title, is wisdom. For older people, it may be nice to know that this sometimes-undervalued asset has been ratified in the lab.