Development of decision making strategies across the lifespan
The research project began in 2009 as a Ph.D. project on the topic of “Decision making in Children: The development of decision making strategies”. The goal is to examine the development of information search and integration processes in the case of multi-attribute, preferential decisions. Especially in reference to children, the research asked the question of how multiple sources of information are handled as well as how strongly information search and integration is influenced by differences in information relevance. Based on the assumption that the processes of information search and integration place different demands on the decision maker, the developmental trajectory and stabilization of both processes is examined separately.
The examination of the development perspective is currently being extended to cover the entire lifespan. We are especially interested in the application of decision making strategies across the lifespan. Do people acquire a growing number of strategies as they age? Are there fundamental, relatively age-independent decision making processes?
The creation of paradigms appropriate for research across such a large age range from childhood to later adulthood represents a central aim of this project. This includes the evaluation of existing paradigms as well as the development of new research methods.
Key Research Findings
Can children integrate many information sources to make a decision?
Can children take many sources of information into consideration when making decisions? Many everyday decisions are complex. In order to make an optimal decision, many sources of information must be integrated into the decision making process. For example, in order to make the best decision when buying shoes, one must consider not only the shoe color but also the fit, material, functionality and also price.
We apply the structure of such so-called multi-attribute, preferential decisions to a decision game in the research laboratory. 6- and 7-year-olds, 8- to 10-year-olds, and 11- and 12-year-olds chose one of two piggy banks that they would like to use to purchase prizes at the end of the experiment. Prior to making this decision, they could search for information on the piggy banks on a type of game board. Based on this decision game, we demonstrated that even 6-year-olds were able to simultaneously consider many different information sources. However, when asked how they came to their decisions, they were not able to provide informative answers. Together with the relatively short decision times, it becomes apparent that automatic processes help children to make quick, good decisions.
Paper: Lindow, S., Lang, A., & Betsch, T. (2017). Holistic information integration in child decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 30, 1131–1146. https://doi.org/10.1002/bdm.2029
Can children systematically search for important information?
Even at an early age, children search for information in order to understand the world around them. For instance, toddlers repeatedly throw objects to the ground in order to observe what happens to them. Parents are certainly familiar with the endless barrage of why-questions from their 4-year-olds. Such behaviors are examples of children’s natural information search. However, research to date has provided contradictory findings when it comes to the question of whether such information search is a more or less random behavior or, instead, a targeted search for important information. One reason for this is that information search is seldom a means to its own end but instead typically represents a sub-process of a larger process such as problem solving or decision making. As a result, information search is researched in numerous different research areas and within diverse overarching tasks.
In a new information search game, the “Find the present!” game, 5- and 6-year-olds as well as 9- and 10-year-olds search for a hidden present hidden in one of three boxes. Four information cards provided the children with information about which box was hiding the present. The information cards were designed to have different levels of informativeness – for instance, some cards do not help at all, whereas others specifically said which box contained the present. The information search game was developed with the aim of creating the simplest possible information search task. This allows us to more closely observe children’s competencies. The data indicate that although 9- and 10-year-olds handle the search task better than the younger children, even the 5- and 6-year-olds perform a targeted search for information and successfully master the search for the present. However, they are particularly successful when the information search task is simple – e.g., when only one information card is informative.
These findings are important because they show that even 5- and 6-year-olds are capable of independently obtaining a good overview of a decision situation. However, in order to more precisely predict when such young children are capable of making independent decisions and when they need additional support, we need a better understanding of the contributing factors.
What a life span perspective can contribute to decision research - or - How does decision making change throughout life?
Different situations require different approaches to decision making. In two studies and a reanalysis of a data collection from our research project, we look at the development of adaptive decision-making (cross-sectionally) across the life span.
In the first reported study, fourth graders, younger adults aged 20 to 39, and older adults over 60 years played the Piggy-Bank decision game. In addition, crystalline intelligence was assessed using vocabulary tests. It was found that all age groups made good decisions and were able to adapt their information search to the decision task. However, age-typical decision behavior occurred at the process level. Older adults, and especially those with low crystalline intelligence, showed difficulty in neglecting irrelevant information and searched rather excessively for information before making their decision.
Since an information-intensive approach also enabled good decision outcomes in the present study, older adults were able to achieve high decision quality. However, such an information-intensive approach was not necessary for all tasks. Accordingly, the other age groups used a more information-frugal approach. These age differences in the process of decision-making could be explained by the fact that with age, the effort associated with planning activities is interpreted differently. Study 2 suggests that age differences may play a role in the assessment of the decision situation and the associated choice of decision strategies.
In contrast to older adults, the children and younger adults in our study showed a more frugal approach to information search. A reanalysis of a dataset that combined project studies allows us to look at childhood from third through sixth grade. Our reanalysis reveals developmental potential over the course of childhood. The greatest challenge in the development of adaptive decision-making appears to be the ability to systematically compile a good information subset. As soon as children master this challenge, they can proficiently adapt information-frugal procedures to make good decisions.
Overall, our work illustrates that direct comparisons of decision-making across the broadest possible age range can make a valuable contribution to understanding developmental trajectories.
Paper: Lindow, S., & Lang, A. (2021). A lifespan perspective on decision-making: A cross-sectional comparison of middle childhood, young adulthood, and older adulthood. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/bdm.2268
Research Paradigm: Decision game "piggy banks"
The piggy bank game is a decision game similar to the “Mouselab” paradigm from adult decision making research (Payne, Bettman, & Johnson, 1988) and is aimed at examining decision making behavior in children and adults.
The goal of the piggy bank game is selecting one of many piggy banks containing different amounts of play money. Participants can obtain information about the contents of each piggy bank by opening doors of a decision board that contain information about the piggy bank contents. Yet, which doors are important and which less important? Which piggy bank is the best? Participants can exchange the play money contained in the piggy bank that they chose for prizes at the end of the game.
With this decision game, we can examine how participants handle different sources of information while making decisions as well as whether they are capable of targeted information search. In contrast to the treasure hunt game that we developed for our DFG-project, the piggy bank game allows us to examine preferential decisions that do not require an understanding of probabilities. Due to the simple, pictorial display format, the game is also appropriate for preschool aged children. The decision context of purchasing prizes also makes the game applicable for older participants up to late adulthood.
Research paradigm: Information search game "Find the Present!"
With the game „Find the Present”, we examine whether children can perform targeted information search. The game is based on established information search paradigms from several domains such as problem solving, learning, and decision making research.
In the „Find the Present” game, children are shown three closed boxes, once of which contains a present. If the children find the present, they are allowed to keep it. To identify the correct box, children can turn over up to four information cards the provide information regarding the symbols displayed on the box containing the present. A symbol is displayed on each of the four corners of each box. Each information card provides information about one of the four symbols. By varying the symbols displayed on the boxes, the information cards have differing degrees of informativeness. Some information cards have no informative value – for instance, if all three boxes have the same symbol at the location to which the card refers.
The goal when developing this game was to create the simplest possible search environment that still allows us to examine all steps of systematic information search. When doing so, the main question of interest is whether children consider the varying importance of information during their information search. Due to the highly simple, pictorial display format, this information search game can be used in children starting in preschool.
Lindow, S., & Lang, A. (2021). A lifespan perspective on decision-making: A cross-sectional comparison of middle childhood, young adulthood, and older adulthood. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/bdm.2268