Stress, Age, and Decision Making

Every decision a person makes requires a consideration of the outcome. When choosing between two options, individuals usually evaluate what each option will produce and make their decision based on the information available to them. Most of the time, the information they have is from their own experiences. Therefore, many people make decisions and choices based on their past experiences, both good and bad. Many times, this process of choosing can involve stress. In fact, nearly everyone feels some level of stress when faced with a decision, regardless of whether it is minor or major. However, the bigger the decision, the more stress that accompanies it.

Because people base future choices on past experiences, Nichole R. Lighthall of the Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California wanted to find out if older individuals experienced more or less stress than younger individuals when making decisions and if this stress affected their ability to choose positive versus negative outcomes. In a recent study, Lighthall and her colleagues examined the levels of dopamine in a sample of young participants, ranging in age from 18 to 34 and compared them to dopamine levels in a sample of individuals over age 65. Dopamine is involved in the risk/reward mechanism of the brain, and influences cravings in those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Because it can indicate positive and negative reward bias, Lighthall chose to examine how stress-induced dopamine levels affected the participants’ choices.

The participants completed a learning phase, which involved subjecting them to stressful situations. This was done to determine whether previous stress would affect future decisions. Lighthall found that the participants were more likely to choose positive outcomes when their stress levels were elevated, regardless of whether they were young or old. This finding suggests that stress helps reinforce learned experiences, thus influencing the outcome of future decisions. Additionally, stress causes dopamine levels to rise, which could make people with increased stress more amenable to positive rewards. Because decision making is a lifelong process that is essential to everyday functioning and interaction with others, it is important to understand the mechanisms that influence this function. Lighthall said, “In summary, this study revealed that acute stress enhanced learning involving positive feedback in both younger and older adults.”

Lighthall, N. R., Gorlick, M. A., Schoeke, A., Frank, M. J., Mather, M. (2012). Stress modulates reinforcement learning in younger and older adults. Psychology and Aging. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029823

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  • Kate


    September 14th, 2012 at 3:10 PM

    I would really hate to think that I have to wait until I am totally stressed out to make decisions with positive outcomes!

  • Meg


    September 15th, 2012 at 7:01 AM

    I have found that the older I have gotten the easier it is for me to know what I want and to keep a cool head when making those decisions. I no longer allow all of life’s little (and big) stresses keep me from being able to be rational. When I was younger, everything was fly by the seat of my pants and I let my emotions and heart lead the way. Now I have learned that I am a whole lot more successful when I lead with my head.

  • taylor


    September 15th, 2012 at 2:45 PM

    but how accurate would it be to say that older people make better decision makers in general?it depends not only on your age but several other things and I’m sure there are plenty of younger folk out there who can stump an older person any day.

  • Marcy


    September 16th, 2012 at 5:14 AM

    I don’t like to have to make decisions when I feel stressed, but at the same time the times when I have had to do this do teach me a lesson that I am more likely to remember. Whatever it is, that I associate the experience with the stress and do not want to have to relive that again, I remember what it felt like and I want to make sure that I can avoid having to do that again at some point.

  • jacob


    September 16th, 2012 at 12:25 PM

    my mind just seems to freeze when i’m excessively stressed.its like i just cannot make any decisions because the stress always puts this scare in me about how things could go wrong due to my decision.

  • Bryan


    September 16th, 2012 at 9:08 PM

    Do experience and better decision making skills come with age? Yes, for most people.

    Do experience and better decision making skills come with stress? I would think not.

  • LouAnne


    September 17th, 2012 at 3:53 AM

    Please let me learn by some other way, not in such a negative way with stress!!

  • tommy


    September 17th, 2012 at 4:25 PM

    somehow I work and make decisions better when Im under just sends me into an overdrive and I really push myself and things generally turn around great.I understand that stress can be a sore point for many people but I guess for some of us its not such a bad thing after all!

  • S.Q


    September 17th, 2012 at 9:26 PM

    I m surprised at d findings coz stress renders me incapable of doin anything let alone make imp decisions…And I see that many of the people here r saying d same…any reason for the difference in what d study says?any1?

  • Ryan


    September 18th, 2012 at 4:17 AM

    Doesn’t seem like a very wise idea to continue making all of your choices and decisions based on experiences form the past. realize that this is our general tendency but you would think that after a while we would realize that if something isn’t working for us we would move on and try something new instead of continuing to do it over and over again.

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