The Lifespan Development of Decision Making

Surprisingly little is known about the decision-making skills and strategies of different age groups. Yet people face important decisions across the entire lifespan. For instance, adolescents decide whether to smoke and drink—and if so, how much—and how much time and energy to invest in their school work. Many of these decisions have lifelong consequences. At the other end of the age spectrum, political and economic power is concentrated in the hands of people who are, on average, considerably older than the general population.

People’s cognitive abilities and knowledge change considerably across the lifespan. Typically, skills and abilities increase early in life before declining again slowly after young adulthood. Knowledge, in contrast, tends to increase across the lifespan. How do such age-related changes in cognitive capabilities and knowledge affect the style and quality of decision making?

The figure below illustrates the relationship between cognitive abilities and decision performance across the lifespan. The top panel shows the hypothetical age gradients for two distinct cognitive factors: α1 represents an ability that peaks early in life (e.g., fluid intelligence), and α2 an ability that peaks much later (e.g., crystallized intelligence). The bottom panel shows average performance in two tasks that differ in their demands on α1 and α2; while one task (in green) taxes mostly α1, the other (in orange) taxes both α1 and α2. Accordingly, peak performance is achieved later in the orange task than in the green one, see Figure below.

We examine such relationships from the perspective of ecological rationality. From this perspective, the extent to which changes in cognitive capabilities lead to changes in decision making is likely to depend strongly on the demands and affordances of specific task environments and ecologies. Thus, the quality of decisions made by people of all ages is the result of how task demands and affordances interact with the decision strategies used. To better understand this interaction, we aim to describe the structure of decision environments: the cognitive processes of strategy selection, the sophisticated cognitive capacities that heuristics exploit, as well as the developmental trajectories of these capacities.

Relationship between cognitive abilities and decision performance across the lifespan

 Relationship between cognitive abilities and decision performance across the li
© MPI for Human Development


Pachur, T., Mata, R., & Schooler, L. J. (2009). Cognitive aging and the use of recognition in decision making. Psychology and Aging, 24, 901–915.

Mata, R., Josef, A., Samanez-Larkin, G., & Hertwig, R. (2011). Age differences in risky choice: A meta-analysis. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1235, 18–29.