Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Older People Make Better Decisions

In an earlier post, I reviewed research showing that seniors compensate for any loss of memory ability by having developed learning and memory schemas over the years. Such schemas are ingrained strategies and ways of efficient learning that improve with experience and age.

Now I have come across recent research that shows another age-developed skill: improved decision-making ability. Teenagers are notorious for poor decision-making. Of course that is inevitable, given that their brains are still developing and they have had relatively little life experience to show them what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, what doesn’t work often has more emotional appeal, and most of us at any age are more susceptible to our emotions than to cold, hard logic.

Seniors also are prone to poor decision-making if senility has set it. Unscrupulous people take advantage of such seniors because a brain that is deteriorating has a hard time making wise decisions.

In between teenage and senility is when the brain is at its peak for good decision making, especially improving as one gets older. Some Eastern cultures venerate their older people as generally being especially wise. After all, it you live long enough, and are still mentally healthy, you ought to make good decisions because you have a lifetime of experience to teach you what future choices are likely to work and which are not.

Much of that knowledge comes from learning from one’s mistakes. On the other hand, some people, especially the young, can’t seem to learn from their mistakes. In any case, the best strategy of all is to learn from somebody else’s mistakes so you don’t have to make them yourself.

Learning from your mistakes can be negative if you fret about it. Learning what you can to avoiding repeating a mistake is one thing, but dwelling on it erodes one’s confidence and sense of self worth. I can never forget the good advice I read recently from, of all people, T. Boone Pickens, who has lost and regained fortunes several times. He was quoted in an interview as saying that he was able to re-make his fortune on multiple occasions because he didn’t dwell on the failures. He credited that attitude to his Oklahoma State basketball coach, who told the team after each defeat, “Learn from your mistakes, but don’t dwell on them. Learn from what you did right and do more of that.”

A key reason seniors make better decisions is that they have a richer store of knowledge and experience. Any choice among alternative options is affected by how much information for each option the brain has to work on. When the brain is consciously trying to make a decision, this often means how much information the brain can hold in working memory. Working memory is notoriously low-capacity, so the key becomes remembering the sub-sets of information that are the most relevant to each option. People are more likely to remember items they value and to forget low-value items.[1]

It turns out, apparently, that older people are more likely to remember the most useful information and thus make better conclusions and decisions. The National Institute of Aging began funding decision-making research in 2010 at Stanford University’s Center on Longevity. Results of their research are showing how older people often make better decisions than younger people.[2],[3]

As one example, older people are more likely to make rational cost-benefit analyses. Older people are more likely to recognize when they have made a bad investment and walk away rather than throwing more good money after bad.

A key factor seems to be that older people are more selective about what they remember. For example, one study from the Stanford Center compared the ability of young and old people to remember a list of words. Not surprisingly, younger people remembered more words, but when words were assigned a number value, with some words being more valuable than others, older people were better at remembering high-value words and ignoring low-value words. It may be that older people selectively remember what is important, which could explain why they make better decisions.

[1] Castel, A. D., Rhodes, M. G., McCabe, D. P., Soderstrom, N. C., Loaiza, V. M. (2012). The fate of being forgotten: Information that is initially forgotten is judged as less important. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65, 2281-2287.
[2] Samanez-Larkin, G.R., Wagner, A.D., Knutson, B. (2011) Expected value information improves financial risk taking across the adult life span. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 6(2), 207–217
[3] Carr, Dawn (2013). Why older minds make better decisions. Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2013/04/29/why-older-minds-make-better-decisions/

For more good advice on improving learning and memory abilities, see Dr. Klemm’s new book, Memory Power 101, Skyhorse Publishing.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Working Memory Executive Control

Do you consciously monitor your working memory? That’s the limited-capacity memory you use when looking up a phone number, for example. If you fail to keep the numbers actively in mind while dialing, you may have to look up the number again. In other words, do you check yourself to see if you are still paying attention to what is in your working memory? Is your mind wandering away from what you are trying to hold in working memory? The cure is to deploy your brain’s innate capacity for executive control over working memory.

For more complicated memory chores than dialing a phone number, are you consciously aware of updating what is in your working memory at a given moment with new information? Do you think about being able to recall information you have just received—as when you are reading? Or do you ever willfully suppress what is in your working memory—as for example, expunging an unpleasant thought.

These questions deal with how well you are consciously aware of the likelihood you can recall what you are experiencing. I suspect that most of us exert some conscious executive control over working memory, but not nearly as efficiently as we could or should. Does it matter? Well yes, because controlling what is in your working memory affects the ongoing thought processes that are using the information that is in working memory. Moreover, how well you monitor your working memory affects how well the information registers in your brain and how well it can become consolidated into a more lasting memory.
I explain the consolidation process and ways to enhance it in my book, Memory Power 101.

Executive control of memory is relatively new in memory research, but one group reports studies suggesting that such research will prove fruitful. A year or so ago, this group’s poster presentation at the Society of Neuroscience meeting intrigued me, and I am delighted that the work has now been formally published.

One of their experiments evaluated listeners’ ability to monitor their moment-to-moment working memory storage capacity as new information arrived. As they listened to recorded word lists, experimenters told the subjects to pause the input at the maximum point that would still allow them for perfect real-time memory recall. That is, they pressed a key to pause the input of words in the list at the latest point at which they believe they would have perfect recall. Interestingly, all subjects paused the recording consistent with their known working memory span, as had been determined in pre-experiment testing. In a follow-up experiment, experimenters reduced the sound volume of the word list so that more effort had to be exerted to perform the task. Under these conditions, subjects were much less accurate in matching their listening to their natural working memory capacity and thus their learning was not optimal.

Obviously, such results suggest that making tasks more difficult can degrade thinking and learning. Teachers and professors who speak softly or with foreign accents should take note. Whatever benefit accrues from the challenge to pay better attention under difficult situations is offset by limitations in working memory storage capacity. Examples of degrading influences in addition to sound volume in listening to information include:

Listening is made more difficult by:

·         Extraneous noise
·         Unfamiliar speech accents
·         Speaking too rapidly
·         Speaking too softly
·         Simultaneous presence of visual stimuli that conflict or distract
·         Irritating or distracting mannerisms of the speaker

Reading is made more difficult by:

·         Font and page design selection
·         Convoluted syntax, awkward sentence structure
·         Unfamiliar vocabulary
·         Distracting visuals
·         Wordiness, poor grammar
·         Poor reading technique (tracking with finger movements, random eye fixations, small fixation span (a few letters or one word at a time)

In all situations, an important factor is whether the listener or reader has control over the speed of information presentation. Thinking and learning are compromised if a person has no control over chunking of information input and matching the input to their working memory storage capacity.

Another factor, not considered in this study, is the likelihood that people differ significantly in conscious executive control capability. We know, for example, that some people can hold focus much better than others can, and this certainly affects their ability to optimize working memory storage of information input.

Can working memory executive control be trained? There are already effective training protocols for expanding working memory capacity (as in the number of items you can hold in working memory). I suspect that we will soon see training programs to enhance executive control of working memory.

To summarize, you can optimize thinking and learning by willfully controlling the ease and convenience of information input as well as by how well you have developed a habit of conscious executive control.


Amichetti, N. M., Stanley, R. S., White, A. G., and Wingfield, A. (2013). Monitoring the capacity of working memory: executive control and effects of listing effort. Mem. Cogn. DOI: 10.3758/s113421-013-0302=0