Lifespan Development of Decision Making

Throughout human evolution and over the course of every person’s life, the structure of decision environments changes profoundly, shaping the decision strategies people have at hand. Whether a decision is successful thus depends on the specific environments that characterize each stage of life.

We investigate the evolutionary origins and lifespan development of decision making from the perspective of ecological rationality. Using behavioral experiments, observational studies, and computational modeling, we aim to shed light on:

  • the evolutionary and developmental origins of human decision making under uncertainty;
  • how children acquire an understanding of the probabilities of events;
  • how children’s selective approach to learning could be influenced by factors such as their age, the environment, and the type of information involved;
  • and how the environment influences adolescents’ willingness to take risks.


Evolutionary and Developmental Roots of Decision Making

Uncertainty is central to every adaptive decision that human and nonhuman animals make, including choosing where to forage, selecting a mate, and dealing with dangerous situations. We study the evolutionary and developmental roots of human risk preferences, reasoning, and decision making by comparing humans to other animals—mainly chimpanzees, humans’ closest living relatives—and by investigating how children develop in different societies.


  • Haux, L. M., Engelmann, J. M., Arslan, R. C., Hertwig, R., & Herrmann, E. (2023). Chimpanzee and human risk preferences show key similarities. Psychological Science, 34(3), 358–369.
  • Haux, L. M., Engelmann, J. M., Herrmann, E., & Hertwig, R. (2021). How chimpanzees decide in the face of social and nonsocial uncertainty. Animal Behaviour, 173, 177–189.
  • Pietraszewski, D., & Wertz, A. E. (2022). Why evolutionary psychology should abandon modularity. Perspectives on Psychological Science,17(2), 465–490.


Use of Decision Strategies at Different Ages

We seek to understand how the ability to make adaptive decisions under uncertainty develops across the life course. People’s cognitive abilities and their experience with different environmental characteristics change with age. For instance, children’s increasing cognitive abilities allow them to use decision strategies more flexibly. At the same time, they also gain experience with decision-making situations and enter these with new expectations. How do these developments influence their decisions as they get older?


  • 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(3), 430–450.
  • Schulze, C., & Hertwig, R. (2021). A description–experience gap in statistical intuitions: Of smart babies, risk-savvy chimps, intuitive statisticians, and stupid grown-ups. Cognition210, Article 104580.
  • Zilker, V., Hertwig, R., & Pachur, T. (2020). Age differences in risk attitude are shaped by option complexity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149(9), 1644–1683.


The Development of Deliberate Ignorance

Children seem tireless in their quest for knowledge, always ready to ask one more “why?” However, even children sometimes prefer not to know—for instance, when they suspect the knowledge could lead to distressing feelings or when they think they already know enough to make a decision. We study the emergence of deliberate ignorance in childhood, examining how factors such as age, environment, and type of information influence children’s selective approach to learning.



Experience and Environment During Adolescence

Adolescents are frequently depicted as impulsive risk-takers who are at the mercy of their developing brains. But recent studies show that the environment plays an important role in moderating risk-taking behaviors. What are the attributes of environments that influence these behaviors? We aim to uncover how environments affect risky behavior, thus providing insights that can inform policy interventions geared at helping adolescents stay safe.


  • Ciranka, S., & Hertwig, R. (2023). Environmental statistics and experience shape risk-taking across adolescence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 27(12), 1123–1134.
  • Ciranka, S., & van den Bos, W. (2019). Social influence in adolescent decision-making: A formal framework. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, Article 1915.
  • 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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