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Metacontrol of decision-making strategies in human aging

  1. Florian Bolenz  Is a corresponding author
  2. Wouter Kool
  3. Andrea Reiter
  4. Ben Eppinger
  1. Technische Universität Dresden, Germany
  2. Harvard University, United States
Research Article
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Cite this article as: eLife 2019;8:e49154 doi: 10.7554/eLife.49154


Humans employ different strategies when making decisions. Previous research has reported reduced reliance on model-based strategies with aging, but it remains unclear whether this is due to cognitive or motivational factors. Moreover, it is not clear how aging affects the metacontrol of decision making, i.e. the dynamic adaptation of decision-making strategies to varying situational demands. In this cross-sectional study, we tested younger and older adults in a sequential decision-making task that dissociates model-free and model-based strategies. In contrast to previous research, model-based strategies led to higher payoffs. Moreover, we manipulated the costs and benefits of model-based strategies by varying reward magnitude and the stability of the task structure. Compared to younger adults, older adults showed reduced model-based decision making and less adaptation of decision-making strategies. Our findings suggest that aging affects the metacontrol of decision-making strategies and that reduced model-based strategies in older adults are due to limited cognitive abilities.

Data availability

Experimental data as well as analysis scripts are available online at https://osf.io/xne7c/?view_only=2dc70606bede44d5a982556ac8fbe0aa

The following data sets were generated

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Florian Bolenz

    Faculty of Psychology, Technische Universität Dresden, Dresden, Germany
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0003-2213-1071
  2. Wouter Kool

    Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, United States
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
  3. Andrea Reiter

    Faculty of Psychology, Technische Universität Dresden, Dresden, Germany
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
  4. Ben Eppinger

    Faculty of Psychology, Technische Universität Dresden, Dresden, Germany
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.


German Research Foundation (SFB 940/2 B7)

  • Ben Eppinger

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.


Human subjects: All participants gave informed written consent. The ethics committee of Technische Universität Dresden approved the study (reference number EK 519122015).

Reviewing Editor

  1. Thorsten Kahnt, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, United States

Publication history

  1. Received: June 7, 2019
  2. Accepted: August 8, 2019
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: August 9, 2019 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: August 21, 2019 (version 2)


© 2019, Bolenz et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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