COVID 19: A Neuroscience Perspective

Why older and younger people make different decisions about how to respond to the pandemic 

A Conversation with Greg Samanez-Larkin, PhD
 Jack H. Neely Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and Bass Fellow

Please tell us about your research area.

Our research is focused on understanding how people feel and think at different stages of adulthood. Most of our studies are trying to figure out what motivates people to make wise choices as they age – from young adulthood to old age.

You have studied how individual differences influence health behavior. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed a wide range of responses by people. Some have strictly followed the advice to engage in social distancing whereas others are ignoring this advice.  Do you have any insight into what individual factors could lead to such different responses to our current situation? 

There has been a lot of reporting and anecdotal social media complaining about teenagers and aging parents not taking this pandemic seriously – ignoring advice to social distance. In studies of financial behavior, the best decision-makers are middle-age, with many studies suggesting the peak is somewhere in the mid-fifties, with the youngest and oldest adults making the worst decisions. But other studies don’t show much of an age difference, instead showing that people of all ages make wise choices but for different reasons. We are trying to better understand those reasons. Kendra Seaman, a former Duke postdoc, now a professor at the University of Texas, Dallas, did a study a few years ago in our lab showing that although older adults are not more impatient when it comes to financial matters (they are willing to wait longer for larger rewards), they are more impatient when it comes to social and health rewards (they want social contact and health interventions now even if it means getting less of them).

Maybe this impatience for social rewards could explain older adults’ lack of social distancing. But I’m skeptical of anecdotes. Dr. Seaman and I are actively collecting data. We're running this study again right now and trying to see how people’s choices in these decision-making tasks might relate to social distancing behavior. No definitive data yet, but so far we don’t see any evidence that older adults are not taking this seriously. We see the same pattern where older adults are more impatient for both social and health rewards. This might explain the data (in contrast to the anecdotes) that older adults are social distancing well on average – even though they are more impatient for social contact, they also place a high priority on health.

We also have a recent study led by PhD student Daisy Burr showing that older adults experience more intense temptations, attempt to resist those temptations slightly less often, but when they do try to resist they are more successful than younger adults. So, older adults have better self-control when they exert it. The data we’re actively collecting so far is consistent with that. Even though older adults may be tempted to socialize, they are keeping those urges under control to preserve their health.

People’s goals and motivations matter more than information, rules, and recommendations. The key is framing information in a way that enhances people's motivation to follow the rules and recommendations.

If someone is engaging in risky health behavior during the current pandemic, what do you suggest for encouraging them to engage in more healthy behavior?

Our research shows that it depends on what that person cares about. Having one universal message that will guarantee adherence in everyone seems like an impossible goal to me. It’s impractical to customize a message for every individual, but messaging that targets different goals should be effective. For example, someone who is most worried about damage to the economy should take seriously the models of what happens if we re-open too early and have to close again.

Where can people find additional information or resources?

Our recent study on aging and resisting temptation was just covered in the Wall Street Journal:

A 12-minute conference talk summarizing our research on the adaptiveness of the aging brain is available here:

Our lab website is: