Information Search and Decision Making: Effects of Age and Complexity on Strategy Use

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Abstract

The impact of task complexity on information search strategy and decision quality was examined in a sample of 135 young, middle-aged, and older adults. We were particularly interested in the competing roles of fluid cognitive ability and domain knowledge and experience, with the former being a negative influence and the latter being a positive influence on older adults' performance. Participants utilized 2 decision matrices, which varied in complexity, regarding a consumer purchase. Using process tracing software and an algorithm developed to assess decision strategy, we recorded search behavior, strategy selection, and final decision. Contrary to expectations, older adults were not more likely than the younger age groups to engage in information-minimizing search behaviors in response to increases in task complexity. Similarly, adults of all ages used comparable decision strategies and adapted their strategies to the demands of the task. We also examined decision outcomes in relation to participants' preferences. Overall, it seems that older adults utilize simpler sets of information primarily reflecting the most valued attributes in making their choice. The results of this study suggest that older adults are adaptive in their approach to decision making and that this ability may benefit from accrued knowledge and experience.

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