Grumpy old men, golden agers, healthy agers, wise elders, senior moments – these are just some of the labels, characteristics and stereotypes given to older people. But is there any truth behind them?
Research into decision-making conducted by psychologists, including Ellen Peters, Laura Carstensen, Mara Mather, Yiwei Chen and Joseph Mikels, has been able to make sense of some of these stereotypes and dispel others by studying the cognitive decision-making abilities in older people.
With an increase in the proportions of ageing populations in most developed countries around the world, such research is invaluable. Older people are only going to become a more significant proportion of society, with different needs and abilities which will have to be addressed. Better understanding of how their decision-making changes as they grow older will provide essential tools for optimising people’s lives; ensuring they make the best decisions for themselves, are offered products and services tailored to the older mindset – the ‘Silver Economy’ - and live in an environment designed to take account of differences in decision-making.
This article is the first of a two-part series in which we explore some of the latest insights around cognitive ageing. The series will:
Analyse four truths about getting older and how they can be accounted for by differences in cognitive decision-making between the young and old.
Consider what implications these differences might have for the communications we design which are aimed at an older consumer, or indeed, the type of decisions we ask older people to make, both as consumers, employees and members of society, and asks what interventions and insights from behavioural science might be applied to optimise decision-making.
In this article we explore the first two truths; one, the old as a source of experienced wisdom and two, how old people become more reliant on mental shortcuts, rules of thumb and ‘System 1 decision-making’. In our second article we’ll go on to look at how and why the old tend to look on the bright side of life but also how they are more susceptible to misinformation.
1) Older and wiser
Many cultures revere the older members of their communities, and regard them as a source of wisdom. And whilst this view is perhaps not as common in developed countries as it used to be, there is actually much truth behind it.
One of the most robust findings by psychologists is that although our reasoning ability declines with age, our knowledge and experience – our wisdom – increases, which can help to compensate:
Reasoning ability, known as fluid intelligence, concerns effortful thinking or how well and how quickly we can absorb, process and comprehend new information. Fluid intelligence typically peaks in our twenties or at the latest our early 30s and then begins to deteriorate. By age 70 this loss equates to roughly 30 IQ points.
Fortunately, through the years, we accumulate more and more knowledge, experience and expertise, known as crystallised intelligence. This intellectual capital helps to offset the decline in fluid intelligence – for a while at least - but after age 60 or so this plateaus and after age 70 also begins to decline, leading to an eventual downward trend in decision-making ability in later years. [See Figure 1].
Figure 1: Levels of fluid and crystallised intelligence over our lifetime. The grey lines illustrate fluid intelligence declines for working memory, processing speed, and reasoning. The green line illustrates the accumulation of crystallised intelligence with age into the 60s, after which it plateaus. Crystallised intelligence may serve as intellectual capital that provides an alternative conduit to sound decisions. Source: Ye Li et al 2015
For example, two studies found evidence of a peak in financial capabilities around age 60. However, recent research by Ye Li and colleagues into the financial decision-making ability of older people found that although an increase in crystallised intelligence can compensate for the decrease in fluid intelligence, it can only do so for familiar tasks. Unfamiliar tasks or decisions may cause confusion and bewilderment. Li and his colleagues note that:
“domain-specific, crystallised intelligence may not help with decisions in radically new financial situations, e.g., older people may be at a disadvantage for domains such as reverse mortgages or digital currency.”
But whilst older people may struggle to navigate new situations and decisions, their higher levels of crystallised intelligence can make them exceptionally good sources of information – your ultimate quiz partner. Evidence of the impact of high levels of crystallised intelligence was illustrated in a study published in October 2015. Janet Metcalfe, Lindsey Casal-Roscum, Arielle Radin and David Friedman asked young and old participants a series of trivia questions such as “In which ancient city were the Hanging Gardens located?” (Correct answer: Babylon). After
each question, participants were asked to state how confident they were in their answer and were also told the correct answer.
Older people did better on the quiz, scoring 41% on average, compared to 26% for the younger participants, reflecting the higher levels of crystallised intelligence (knowledge and trivia) that had been picked up and retained in their brains over their longer lifetimes.
What was surprising, however, was what happened after the quiz, when participants were retested on some of the questions they got wrong. Remarkably, older people corrected far more of their answers than did the younger participants. Whilst the young corrected 66% on average, the older participants corrected 73%, suggesting that older people do not have the stubborn mindsets we often presume them to have and are actually more open to and/or more capable of new learning than the young. This was particularly true for the answers the older participants were less sure of. Here they corrected 65% of their answers compared to only 53% for the younger participants, suggesting that they paid considerable attention to what they got wrong or did not know.
Their seemingly greater attention was supported by the researchers’ findings from EEG recordings of brain activity. Older participants showed greater attention and memory encoding in the brain when shown the correct answer than younger participants.
Why might older people be better at correcting – or keener to correct - their knowledge? One possibility is that they may feel at their age they should know these facts, be embarrassed or even worried that they didn’t know them or had forgotten them and were therefore more driven to learn and correct their knowledge.
2) Gut feelings: The older we become the more we revert to System 1 dominated decision-making
Although older people are still capable of drawing on their fluid intelligence to conduct System 2- led decision-making using their reasoning ability and deliberative capacity, it takes more effort as it’s harder for them to ignore or sift through irrelevant information. They therefore tend to be more selective about using System 2, saving their cognitive resources for important decisions with significant consequences and relying more on gut-feel, rules of thumb and shortcuts – System 1 decision-making – for less important, inconsequential decisions.
As a result, the old tend to prefer simple choices with minimal options and information that is succinct and straightforward. An 85 year old retired engineer in the US trying to make her healthcare choices exclaimed:
“I'm 85, do I have to go through this nonsense? I'm trying to absorb all the information, but it's ridiculous. Not just ridiculous, it's scary. If there was a single card and it was administered by Medicare, and it got the cost of drugs down -- wonderful, marvellous.”
Research supports this anecdote:
In a study by Andrew Reed, Joseph Mikels and Kosali Simon where participants were asked to make choices across domains of healthcare (prescription drug plans, physicians and hospitals) and everyday decisions (cars, apartments or jams), older adults did not value choice as much as the young. In a large-scale survey in New York State, older adults tended to prefer half the number of options to younger adults and the very old (eg 80+ year olds) tended to prefer even less choice than people in their 60s and 70s.
Other studies have found that the old have a greater tendency to defer decisions when faced with what they perceive as too much choice. Yiwei Chen and colleagues presented younger and older adults with a choice of four cars to buy, as well as the option to defer purchase or not make any decision to buy at that time. Older adults were both more likely to defer their decision and also did not experience negative emotions afterwards, such as regret or worry about not making a purchase.
Key implications of these findings
These findings provide fundamental insights into how our brains change over time, with clear implications about how we might differentiate communication to younger and older groups.
Older and wiser:
The cross over between our declining fluid intelligence and rising crystallised intelligence is a simple behavioural insight. The implication is an older audience who can cope more easily with familiar tasks and situations and struggle more with new situations or decisions that draw on fluid intelligence.
So, if we are to communicate the new effectively to this critical, older demographic, we need to design communication with an awareness of these changes, using anchors or frames which connect to previous experiences or familiar reference points.
Gut feelings: System 1 dominated decision making:
When presenting choice to older audiences we need to be particularly careful about how many options there are; 5 options will be better received than 50 or even 8. We also need to structure choice and decision-making even more carefully than usual to ensure that a decision is relatively easy to make and is therefore less likely to be deferred for another day.
It is also productive to ensure any information is high in cognitive ease i.e. uses plain English, with clear signposts and makes salient the key information. In addition, older people in general are more sensitive to loss framing so it would help to point out what losses they may incur if they postpone their decision and guide them in their choice.
Read more from Crawford Hollingworth and The Behavioural Architects in our Clubhouse.