nos-trum. pronunciation: \nos'-trum\. noun. Etymology: Latin, neuter of noster our, ours.
1. a medicine of secret composition recommended by its preparer but usually without scientific proof of its effectiveness.
2. a usually questionable remedy or scheme.
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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Aging And Decision-Making: Slower But Better?

Getting old means slower mental responses and poorer short term memory for some, but when time is not a factor, being older means better decisions.

There are many factors at work when we decide to act or not act, fight or flee, buy or not buy.  We're confronted with these decisions every day.  We know that the older we get, the slower we are to decide and the weaker are our short term memory skills.

But is it age alone that brings about this change?  A group of researchers wanted to isolate aging as a variable, and see whether other factors might be at work.  Their study in the upcoming issue of Psychology and Aging (June 1), was reported by USA Today (June 5):
When younger and older adults had the same levels of memory and speed of processing, "they'd be likely to make the same sorts of decisions," [co-author Scott] Huettel said. "In general, younger adults are able to do things faster than older adults. But there are a number of older adults who are faster than younger adults....The findings suggest that older people might make better decisions if they have more time for their brains to process details," he said.
The authors didn't explore why some older adults are faster, but even those who are slower made better decisions in many cases.

Another expert, Dr. Gary Small, director of the University of California at Los Angeles Center on Aging, said
"Reaction time, short-term memory ability and processing speed decline with age, but complex reasoning skills improve," he said. "Together, these factors have a complex impact on age-related decision-making skills, so that some individuals show improvement while others show decline in decision-making skills associated with aging."
Clearly decision-making is not a simple matter of speed and memory.  So what's at work with complex reasoning skills improvement as aging occurs?  There's no discussion in the article, but it's hard not to speculate that "experience of decision-making" may be at work.

I once attended a seminar on leadership that addressed decision-making, and how to make the best decisions.  The speaker's main advice was, "get the best information you can, but don't hesitate.  Make a hundred decisions a day.  Don't worry about always being right; you'll get better the more you make."

Maybe that's the missing variable to how our minds work in making everyday decisions.   Older people have just been at it longer.

It sounds mundane, and contrary to modern thought.  Today we value the new, the quick, and the impulsive: try this, try that...

But maybe those old civilizations and tribes who revered and sought advice from Elder Counsels (still practiced today in some countries) were on to something.

Doc D

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