Lifespan Development of Decision Making

People make countless judgements and decisions throughout their lives: As children, we decide whom to trust and where our preferences lie; as adolescents, we juggle doing school work with hanging out with friends; as young adults, we decide on a career path and how to spend our newly earned money; in later adulthood, we may need to choose which medical treatment to undergo or when to retire; in older age, we decide how to spend our free time, whether caring for grandchildren, travelling, or volunteering, and when it might be necessary to move to more suitable accommodation.

Use of Decision Strategies at Different Ages

In order to cope with the demands of an uncertain world, people need to be able to make adaptive decisions in diverse situations throughout the lifespan. In our current research, we seek to understand how people’s ability to make adaptive judgments and decisions under uncertainty develops across the life course. We ask how age-related changes in core cognitive abilities affect the quality of people’s decisions and the processes underlying them; which inference and decisions tools or strategies are present at a very young age and which emerge in the course of development; how older adults differ from younger adults when it comes to dealing with uncertainty and risk; and how first-hand experience with the probabilistic and statistical structure of an environment impacts children’s and adults’ decisions.

Age-Related Changes in Decision Environments

In addressing these questions, we investigate lifespan development from the perspective of ecological rationality. Over the course of life, the structure of people’s decision environments changes profoundly, shaping both the merits and pitfalls of the decision strategies they have at hand. The success of many of our choices thus depends on the affordances and constraints of the specific decision environments that characterize each stage of life.


  • Horn, S. S., Ruggeri, A., & Pachur, T. (2016). The development of adaptive decision making: Recognition-based inference in children and adolescents. Developmental Psychology52, 1470–1485.
  • Josef, A. K., Richter, D., Samanez-Larkin, G. R., Wagner, G. G., Hertwig, R., & Mata, R. (2016). Stability and change in risk-taking propensity across the adult lifespan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,111, 430–450.
  • Pachur, T., Mata, R., & Hertwig, R. (2017). Who dares, who errs? Disentangling cognitive and motivational roots of age differences in decisions under risk. Psychological Science28, 504–518.
  • van den Bos, W., & Hertwig, R. (2017). Adolescents display distinctive tolerance to ambiguity and to uncertainty during risky decision making. Scientific Reports7:40962.
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