Risk Taking for Potential Reward Decreases across the Lifespan

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Rutledge, Robb B. ; Smittenaar, Peter ; Zeidman, Peter ; Brown, Harriet R. ; Adams, Rick A. ; Lindenberger, Ulman ; Dayan, Peter ; Dolan, Raymond J. (2016)
  • Publisher: Cell Press
  • Journal: Current Biology, volume 26, issue 12, pages 1,634-1,639 (issn: 0960-9822, eissn: 1879-0445)
  • Related identifiers: pmc: PMC4920952, doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.05.017
  • Subject: Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all) | Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all) | Report | Science & Technology, Life Sciences & Biomedicine, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, AGE-RELATED-CHANGES, DECISION-MAKING, PREDICTION ERRORS, DOPAMINERGIC MODULATION, PROSPECT-THEORY, WORKING-MEMORY, OLDER-ADULTS, BRAIN, INDIVIDUALS, VARIABILITY

Summary The extent to which aging affects decision-making is controversial. Given the critical financial decisions that older adults face (e.g., managing retirement funds), changes in risk preferences are of particular importance [1]. Although some studies have found that older individuals are more risk averse than younger ones [2, 3, 4], there are also conflicting results, and a recent meta-analysis found no evidence for a consistent change in risk taking across the lifespan [5]. There has as yet been little examination of one potential substrate for age-related changes in decision-making, namely age-related decline in dopamine, a neuromodulator associated with risk-taking behavior. Here, we characterized choice preferences in a smartphone-based experiment (n = 25,189) in which participants chose between safe and risky options. The number of risky options chosen in trials with potential gains but not potential losses decreased gradually over the lifespan, a finding with potentially important economic consequences for an aging population. Using a novel approach-avoidance computational model, we found that a Pavlovian attraction to potential reward declined with age. This Pavlovian bias has been linked to dopamine, suggesting that age-related decline in this neuromodulator could lead to the observed decrease in risk taking.
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