How does aging impact decision making? The contribution of cognitive decline and strategic compensation revealed in a cognitive architecture

Hanna B. Fechner, Thorsten Pachur, Lael J. Schooler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Older adults often face decline in cognitive resources. How does this impact their decision making-especially under high cognitive demands from concurrent activities? Do older adults' decision processes uniformly decline with increasing mental strain relative to younger adults, or do they compensate for decline by strategically reallocating resources? Using empirical data and computational modeling, we investigated older and younger adults' execution of two decision strategies in a multiattribute judgment task, while varying the demands from a concurrent task. One strategy (take-the-best) involves searching attributes in order of importance until one attribute favors one alternative; the other strategy (tallying) requires the integration of attributes favoring each alternative. Although older adults executed both strategies quite accurately, they performed worse and more slowly than younger adults. Moreover, when the concurrent demands increased, both age groups executed the strategies less accurately and more slowly. Crucially, when take-the-best required searching an increasing number of attributes, participants' accuracy and speed initially decreased with increasing search requirements, but accuracy recovered and the slowing lessened at the highest search requirements; this pattern was particularly prominent in older adults and most pronounced under the highest concurrent demands. Simulations with models in the cognitive architecture ACT-R showed how decline in specific cognitive resources can contribute to older adults' decrements in strategy execution. However, accommodating older adults' preserved strategy execution of take-the-best under the highest demands required assuming compensatory shifts in resource allocation. Thus, cognitive decline and strategic compensation applied under highest demands provided complementary accounts for older adults' decision behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1634-1663
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2019


  • ACT-R
  • Aging
  • Compensation
  • Computational modeling
  • Decision making

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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