Age-Related Within-Task Adaptations in Sequential Decision Making: Considering Cognitive and Motivational Factors

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Many decisions require sequentially searching through the available alternatives. In these tasks, older adults have been shown to perform worse than younger adults, but the reasons why age differences occur are still unclear. In the present research, we tackle this question by investigating which strategies older and younger adults adopt and how these strategies relate to individual differences in cognitive (mental speed, working memory capacity) and motivational (need for cognitive closure) variables. To achieve this goal, we conducted two studies in which older and younger adults performed a computerized sequential choice task. Study 1 indicated that older adults changed their decision-making strategies throughout the task by reducing the number of options they considered. This change in strategy did not decrease performance because searching less allowed older adults to choose more promising options. In the second study we manipulated whether a long or short search was optimal. In the beginning older adults performed worse than younger adults independent of whether short or long search was adaptive. However, in the second half of the task we found age differences in performance when long search was required, but not when short search was required. In both studies whether or not older adults changed their strategy depended on their need for cognitive closure, suggesting that avoiding cognitive closure facilitates adaptive flexibility. Together, the two studies provide evidence for compensatory strategy adaptations among older adults completing sequential choice tasks.

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