As baby boomers age, do their decisions get better or worse?

West Virginia University - Eberly College of Arts and Sciences

In 2050, the total number of Americans aged 65 and older will be 88 million, double the number estimated for 2010.
As an economic and political force, researchers say that older adults hold a tremendous amount of social power. A new West Virginia University study is examining what factors contribute to older adults' decisions.
"Most of the research that has been done has utilized younger adults as participants," said Natalie Shook, principal investigator on the project and assistant professor in the WVU Department of Psychology. "We've got a lot of information regarding the psychological decision-making processes that guide younger adults' behavior. But very little work has explored older adults."
The study is supported by a three-year, $458,547 National Science Foundation grant. JoNell Strough, also a professor in the Department of Psychology, serves as co-principal investigator.
WVU researchers use an activity that explores attitude formation called "Bean Fest." The game uncovers how people process positive and negative information by presenting them with novel stimuli, referred to as beans. Points are rewarded for identifying good and bad beans correctly.
Research has shown that decision-making changes by age. Many have attributed this to causes such as declines in cognitive processing and health associated with age. But not all decisions get worse with age. Some get better.
Understanding how people perceive positive and negative information may provide a window into age-related differences in decision-making. Young adults typically focus on the negative rather than the positive, using it diagnostically to inform their decisions.
This negativity bias doesn't necessarily generalize, Shook said. Data indicate that as we age, we start to shift to have a positivity bias, and this could affect decisions.
"There is unprecedented growth in the population that's going to be 65 and older," Strough said. "People that age tend to control a lot of the assets in the U.S. -- a lot of the finances and wealth are held by older people. The types of decisions they make with their money, about their health, are going to have implications on society as a whole."

The above story is based on materials provided by West Virginia University - Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.