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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