Advantageous Decision-Making Among Older Adults is a Function of Positive Somatic Markers

Marilyn Steinbach, University of Iowa, Iowa City, United States
Adam Bauer, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, United States
Antoine Bechara, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, United States
Daniel Tranel, University of Iowa, Iowa City, United States
Natalie Denburg, University of Iowa, Iowa City, United States


Skin conductance response (SCR) serves as a somatic marker that shapes decision making. Among younger adults, research with the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) has shown higher SCRs to aversive stimuli, suggesting reliance on negative somatic markers to guide advantageous decision making. However, among older adults, positive somatic markers appear to shape advantageous decision making. Here, we have an opportunity to examine the presence and direction of somatic markers in healthy older adults using the E’F’G’H’ variant of the Iowa Gambling Task, which requires accepting high immediate punishment with higher delayed reward to perform advantageously. We predicted that participants with impaired IGT decision-making would fail to produce discriminatory anticipatory, punishment, and reward SCRs, while unimpaired participants would generate discriminatory SCRs to good vs. bad decks.

Participants and Methods:

Healthy older adults (N=107, 70.8±7.7 years old, 62% female, 15.6±2.6 years of education, 108.5±6.9 premorbid intellect) were recruited from the greater Iowa City community. Participants completed E’F’G’H’ IGT using computerized administration and were categorized as “unimpaired” if they performed above chance on the IGT or as “impaired” if they performed at or below chance. While completing the IGT, SCRs were recorded at fixed intervals. Anticipatory SCRs were collected prior to the participant selecting a card, while punishment and reward SCRs were collected after selecting a card. A linear mixed model was utilized to examine differences in SCR amplitude during “good” vs. “bad” deck choices for each epoch (anticipatory, punishment, and reward) between impaired and unimpaired older participants.


As predicted, analyses showed that participants who performed poorly on the IGT did not produce significantly different SCRs to punishment or reward epochs (p > 0.05), while participants who were unimpaired did produce discriminatory SCRs to both punishment (p = .026) and reward (p = .028). Further, while the impaired group showed no significant difference in SCRs to “good” vs “bad” decks, the unimpaired group had a 16.8% greater SCR response for “good” relative to “bad” decks for both punishment and reward epochs. Adjusting for education did not change any of the findings. Contrary to predictions, analyses revealed a nonsignificant difference in anticipatory SCRs for both impaired and unimpaired participant groups.


While SCRs to good and bad IGT decks were non-discriminatory for the impaired group, unimpaired participants did produce discriminatory SCRs during both the punishment and reward epochs. This suggests that the unimpaired participants may have utilized somatic markers to guide their decision-making leading to an advantageous performance on the IGT, while the impaired participants’ disadvantageous performance may result from deficient use of somatic markers. This adds to previous research (e.g., Denburg et al., 2006), which found higher magnitude SCRs to “good” decks as compared to “bad” decks for unimpaired older adults who performed the original A’B’C’D’ IGT. Taken together, these data support a possible hypersensitivity to reward in older adults. Our findings support the claim: advantageous decision-making among older adults is a function of positive somatic markers.

Category: Aging

Keyword 1: aging (normal)
Keyword 2: decision-making
Keyword 3: cognitive processing