Differential Impacts of Healthy Cognitive Aging on Directed and Random Exploration

Jack Morgan Mizell, Siyu Wang, Alec Frisvold, Lily Alvarado, Alex Farrell-Skupny, Waitsang Keung, Caroline E. Phelps, Mark H. Sundman, Mary Kathryn Franchetti, Ying hui Chou, Gene E. Alexander, Robert C. Wilson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Deciding whether to explore unknown opportunities or exploit well-known options is a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives. Extensive work in college students suggests that young people make explore–exploit decisions using a mixture of information seeking and random behavioral variability. Whether, and to what extent, older adults use the same strategies is unknown. To address this question, 51 older adults (ages 65–74) and 32 younger adults (ages 18–25) completed the Horizon Task, a gambling task that quantifies information seeking and behavioral variability as well as how these strategies are controlled for the purposes of exploration. Qualitatively, we found that older adults performed similar to younger adults on this task, increasing both their information seeking and behavioral variability when it was adaptive to explore. Quantitively, however, there were substantial differences between the age groups, with older adults showing less information seeking overall and less reliance on variability as a means to explore. In addition, we found a subset of approximately 26% of older adults whose information seeking was close to zero, avoiding informative options even when they were clearly the better choice. Unsurprisingly, these “information avoiders” performed worse on the task. In contrast, task performance in the remaining “information seeking” older adults was comparable to that of younger adults suggesting that age-related differences in explore–exploit decision making may be adaptive except when they are taken to extremes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)88-101
Number of pages14
JournalPsychology and aging
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2024
Externally publishedYes


  • decision making
  • explore–exploit dilemma
  • healthy aging

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geriatrics and Gerontology
  • Social Psychology
  • Aging


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