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Monday, December 26, 2016

Are We More Risk Averse as We Get Older? It’s a Gray (Matter )

Risk Aversion and age
Newswise, December 26, 2016 — Age itself is not the determining factor in how an individual views or tolerates risk when making decisions; instead, it is the age-related decline in the volume of gray matter in our brains, research by NYU’s Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Decision Making shows.

“These results provide a basis for understanding the neural mechanisms involved in risky choices and offer a glimpse into the dynamics that affect decision-making in an aging population,” explains study co-author Paul Glimcher, a professor at NYU’s Center for Neural Science and director of the Interdisciplinary Study of Decision Making (IISDM).

“This research can help us improve how we communicate with the elderly about complex issues that may present risks to them.”

“Older adults need to make many important financial and medical decisions, often under high levels of uncertainty,” adds lead author Ifat Levy, an associate professor of comparative medicine and of neuroscience at Yale University and visiting professor at IISDM.

“We know that decision making changes with age, but we don’t really know what the biological basis of these changes is. In this paper, we make the first step towards answering this question, by showing that the decrease in gray matter volume in a particular part of the brain – posterior parietal cortex – accounts for the increase in risk aversion observed with age."

The study, which appears in the journal Nature Communications, focused on the right posterior parietal cortex (rPPC)—a part of the brain involved in planning movements, spatial reasoning, and attention.

For the study, the research team presented a series of choices to 52 study participants, aged 18 to 88 years. Participants could either receive $5 or take their chances with a lottery of varying amounts and probabilities.

For example, a participant could choose the certain gain of $5 or opt for a 25 percent chance of getting $20. The researchers also measured the gray matter volume in the posterior parietal cortex of each subject, drawn from MRI scans.

After analyzing the risk choices and MRI measurements, the researchers confirmed that age-related decline in risk tolerance correlates more with changes in brain anatomy than with age.

The study’s other authors were: Michael Grubb, an NYU postdoctoral fellow at the time of the study and now an assistant professor at Trinity College in Connecticut; Agnieszka Tymula, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney; and Sharon Gilaie-Dotan, a postdoctoral fellow at University College London.

The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (R01 5R01AG033406, R21AG049293); the DOI for this paper will be 10.1038/NCOMMS13822.

Do Thoughts of Death Change Our Shopping Habits?

Shopping and thoughts of Death, Morality
A new study from Concordia and HEC explores how mortality affects consumerism

Newswise, December 26, 2016-- It's been that time of year again: when festive ads command consumers to BUY! BUY! BUY! for their friends and family. But despite this holiday cheer, negative news marches on.

Reports of plane crashes, terrorist attacks, fatal car accidents and deadly fires may lead shoppers to think more about their own mortality than buying that new holiday sweater for Uncle Dave.

But new research from the John Molson School of Business (JMSB) and HEC Montréal shows that, for people with certain world views, thoughts of death can actually trigger the buying impulse.

In a study recently published in The Journal of Consumer Affairs, marketing professors Michel Laroche and Marcelo Nepomuceno found that the habits of spendthrifts don't change after contemplating their own mortality.

Compulsive shoppers, on the other hand, go out and buy more.

"Previous research shows that thoughts of death lead individuals to strongly defend world views that maintain their self-esteem," Laroche says.

"In other words, thinking about death will likely make people cling even more strongly to their beliefs because it's a way to cope with mortality."

Laroche and Nepomuceno wanted to test this assumption with anti-consumers -- people who voluntarily resist consumption out of a sense of frugality or desire to live simply, and with over-consumers -- folks who shop till they drop, no matter the season.

The researchers ran two experiments with 503 North American university students. The respondents were first asked to answer questionnaires identifying their tendency to resist consumption. They were then randomly assigned to one of two groups:
1.     In the "death thoughts" group, participants were asked to describe what they would feel if they were dying.
2. In the control group, participants were asked to report what they would feel if they were submitted to a painful dental procedure.
'Anti-consumers seem to care less about consumption than over-consumers!'

Afterwards, participants indicated their inclination to purchase a series of products. By comparing the participants in each condition, the researchers were able to identify individual tendencies to increase or reduce consumption due to thoughts of death.

"Our expectation was that the anti-consumption individuals would become even more inclined to resist consumption. This would indicate that for them, resistance was an important source of self-esteem," Nepomuceno says.

"In fact, we found that anti-consumers were not influenced by thoughts of death, which suggests that they do not believe that resistance to consumption is a source of self-esteem. In other words, anti-consumers seem to care less about consumption than over-consumers!"

Interestingly, among consumers inclined to over-consume, the researchers found that thinking about death made them even more likely to buy.

"This indicates that such consumers see purchasing and having goods and services as an important source of self-esteem. When they think about death, they become more inclined to buy because this helps them feel better about themselves," Nepomuceno explains.

He and Laroche, who was recently named editor-in-chief of the Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, hope that the results of this study will arm the general public -- especially those inclined toward retail therapy -- with a better understanding of how consumption is influenced by situational factors. They also aim to show the occurrence of such influences without the full knowledge of the consumer.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Brain Structure Best Explains Our Dwindling Tolerance of Risk

Aging brain and less tolerance of riskNewswise, December 19, 2016 — Our brain’s changing structure, not simply getting older and wiser, most affects our attitudes to risk, according to new research.

The University of Sydney’s Dr Agnieszka Tymula has for years been studying the factors that influence human decision-making. Until now, researchers could not say whether our tendency to make fewer risky decisions as we age was due to the wisdom of growing older, or our brain structures.

Published in Nature Communications this week, Dr Tymula and her co-authors from New York University, Yale University, University College London and Trinity College show risk aversion is better explained by changes in grey matter volume in an area in the brain’s right posterior parietal cortex, rather than by age itself.

“We know that as people age, they tend to become more averse to taking risks,” said Dr Tymula. “Yet, it seems there is something to the saying that everybody ages at a different pace. Our research suggests the speed at which our brain’s structure changes has a greater impact on our tolerance of risk than chronological age.”

In an experiment, the researchers asked more than 50 adults aged 18 to 88 to make choices between a guaranteed gain of $5 or ambiguous and risky lotteries with a payout of up to $120. Older participants preferred the guaranteed option, compared to younger participants.

Surprisingly, when researchers put these data into a model to determine what best predicted this change in preference, they found it was primarily driven by the neuronal density – the thickness and thinness of grey matter – in this brain region, rather than by age.

The results are published on December 14 in the high-impact journal, Nature Communications.

“Globally, we are experiencing an unprecedented demographic shift with people over 60 expected to outnumber children in only 30 years. Understanding how such a shift will affect decisions made in our societies on a political and economic level will be hugely important,” said Dr Tymula.

“When we choose our life partners, make a bet with a colleague, invest in a stock or vote in presidential elections, we cannot predict with certainty how these decisions will affect us and others. Understanding the brain’s structure can help us predict how our own and others’ decisions will change as our brain ages.”

The paper, Neuroanatomy Accounts for Age-Related Changes in Risk Preferences, will be available online in Nature Communications from 14 December 2016 Sydney 3am (AET) / 13 December 2016 London 4pm (GMT) at this link.