When good moods go decisively bad

Positive feelings can lead to less than ideal choices in seniors

Feeling peppy may lead older adults to settle for less. In a new study, seniors in a good mood compared fewer options and made worse choices than did those in a bad mood or younger participants.

“Positive emotions may have costs for older adults’ decision making,” says study coauthor Bettina von Helversen, a psychologist at the University of Basel in Switzerland.

A bright mood makes it harder to select a quality option from a series of choices, such as finding a bargain on a new computer offered at different prices by various online sites, say von Helversen and University of Basel colleague Rui Mata.

Though the study looked at comparing prices on products, picking from a series of choices, what psychologists call sequential decision making, especially comes into play in situations such as choosing an apartment, hiring a caretaker or selecting a mate.

Previous research has found that people’s moods generally become increasingly upbeat as they age. It’s this good mood, perhaps more than intellectual declines, that undermine seniors’ sequential decisions by promoting a limited search of available options, the researchers report in an upcoming Psychology and Aging.

Many studies have linked happiness and other positive emotions to benefits such as improved physical health. But some research suggests that people in a good mood think about problems superficially and overvalue desirable items, consistent with a tendency among older adults to examine only a few products when looking for a bargain price.

These new findings fit with evidence that, depending on the situation, positive moods can either hinder or help older adults’ decisions, remarks psychologist Lynn Hasher of the University of Toronto. On the plus side, seniors often have a clear preference for familiar purchases such as cars, which cuts down on product searches and yet still yields satisfying picks, Hasher says.

Older adults may often feel content with their choices, for better or worse, from sets of alternatives, von Helversen suggests. In a paper published online April 19 in Science, a team led by neuroscientist Stefanie Brassen of University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany found that healthy older adults reported less regret about unforeseeable bad choices on a lab task than either depressed seniors or healthy young adults.

In the new investigation, von Helversen and Mata asked 64 volunteers — half in their early 20s and half around 70 years old — to use a computer to shop for the best price on 60 products in a task set up to model Internet shopping. Participants could view up to 40 different prices, one at a time, for items that included computer monitors and refrigerators. But participants were not allowed to peruse all prices and then decide — once they had passed over an option it was no longer available.

Overall, older adults considered fewer options before making choices and so selected higher-priced products than younger adults did.

Only elderly volunteers reported high levels of enthusiasm and other positive feelings before testing. Upbeat moods peaked among individuals who viewed the fewest number of items on the shopping task. Scores on vocabulary and problem-solving tasks showed no relationship to price-shopping success.

In a separate test, young adults shown mood-boosting images before doing price comparisons perused fewer products than same-age participants shown neutral pictures.

Citing previous work, the researchers say that a happy mood may lead to worse choices by encouraging more superficial thinking or by leading participants to view inferior options in a more positive light.

Von Helversen and Mata did not measure volunteers’ working memory, the ability to juggle different pieces of information at once. Declining working memory in older adults probably makes it harder to profit from examining lots of options in a sequence, von Helversen says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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