dent about their ability to make decisions, a confidence that contrasts with their concerns about other cognitive abilities such as memory (Hertzog, Lineweaver, and McGuire, 1999; Princeton Survey Research, 1998). Another potential reason for the relative neglect of this topic is that decision making involves so many different subprocesses. For example, being able to keep multiple pieces of information in mind may be important for a decision between options. Thinking more than one step beyond the decision itself should help people examine the consequences of various possibilities and make the best decisions. An ability to deal with the emotional aspects of a decision is necessary in many cases. Based on the research reviewed in this paper, some of the processes involved with decision making show decline with age, whereas others remain stable or improve. To date, however, there has been very little research connecting age-related changes in the cognitive and emotional capabilities thought to underlie decision making with changes in decision making itself.
In this paper, I discuss two aspects of aging that seem particularly relevant for decision making. The first is older adults’ increased effectiveness of emotion regulation. Both self-reports and actual emotional experience indicate that older adults are better at avoiding negative affect and maintaining positive affect (Carstensen, Pasupathi, Mayr, and Nesselroade, 2000; Gross et al., 1997). A desire to regulate emotions may influence decisions. For instance, avoiding regret and maximizing satisfaction are motivations behind many decisions (Loewenstein, Weber, Hsee, and Welch, 2001; Mellers and McGraw, 2001). In addition, the degree to which younger adults focus on emotion regulation influences their decision processes (Luce, 1998; Luce, Bettman, and Payne, 1997). Thus age-related changes in emotion may predict or help explain some age-related differences seen in decision making.
The second aspect I focus on is the cognitive neuroscience of aging. Certain regions of the brain deteriorate more with age than others, and thus the way that people make decisions may change as processes that rely on certain brain structures become less effective. In particular, aging tends to affect the frontal areas more than other regions of the brain. Frontal regions are essential for many of the more complex cognitive and emotional processes and are implicated in decision making. Understanding the impact of aging on the frontal regions of the brain may therefore help scientists predict and understand age differences in decision making.
After I review these two aspects of aging and their implications for decision making, I review several themes that emerge from the literature on aging and decision making. The first is a surprising lack of age differences in dealing with risky decisions, contrary to general stereotypes about increased cautiousness with age. Next, I review what seem to be the most frequently replicated age differences in decision making: older adults are