As our decision making skills decline with age, how does it affect our ability to innovate?

As our decision making skills decline with age, how does it affect our ability to innovate?

Much like corporations become slow and stagnant, our own skills decline as we age; unless we do something about it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in decision making…

When intuitive decision making works

Our ability to make good decisions can also be viewed as collection of cognitive capabilities that change with age. These abilities include fluid and crystallized intelligence, speed of processing, and the discipline to think twice before responding.

Here is a short summary of both:

  1. Fluid intelligence refers to the ability to solve problems that you’ve never seen before. Fluid intelligence doesn’t depend on something you’ve learned. Tests that require you to visualize spatial relationships, to hold facts in working memory, and to complete a series of numbers help measure fluid intelligence.
  2. Crystallized intelligence is the ability to use the knowledge accumulated through learning. Tests for vocabulary, geography, and history measure crystallized intelligence. Performance on general intelligence tests is a blend of intelligence as process and intelligence as knowledge.

Research shows that as we age, fluid intelligence declines and crystallized intelligence increases. This isn’t new, it has been said that older people are wiser than young people. That is a lot of accumulated knowledge that they can easily put to use without much thinking, it gives them an edge over young people. This doesn’t just happen in areas like finance and business, but shows up consistently on other fields.

David Galenson, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, has studied artistic creativity in detail. He argues that there are two types of artistic innovators and that each one peaks at a different time:

  1. Cconceptual innovator, produces work that is novel and different from that of other artists. Although these artists tend to make detailed preparations before they start a project, they rely much less on what has come before them and more on “the desire to communicate specific ideas or emotions.” Galenson identified Pablo Picasso as a classic conceptual innovator. The peak of Picasso’s productivity came when he was twenty-six years old, and his pieces from that period are the most valuable of all his work.
  2. Experimental innovators do lots of research, accumulate knowledge, and rely on slow and incremental progress. They often remain unsatisfied with their final work, believing that there’s always room for improvement. Galenson’s prototypical experimental innovator was Paul Cézanne, who asked, “Will I ever attain the end for which I have striven so much and for so long?” Cézanne’s peak of productivity came at age sixty-seven. As with Picasso’s peak period, paintings from his later years are the most valuable of Cézanne’s work.

The two peaks of creativity, young for novel work and old for cumulative work, fit well with the patterns in fluid and crystallized intelligence. Fields where novel approaches to problems are important, including math and physics, are where young researchers have the most success. Galenson argues that it is not the field itself that determines the age of peak intellectual performance, but rather the type of innovation the scientist or artist pursues. Still, math, physics, and poetry are fields that have been dominated by younger practitioners, while older people tend to do better in history, biology, and novel writing.

Bottom line: Age doesn’t matter, what matters is how curious and experimental we continue to be throughout or lives. Still, to battle our tendency to rely on our intuition (crystallized intelligence) we must deliberately question our own assumptions. And, though we are talking about individuals, innovation is a team game. And, teams should be made up of people from different backgrounds and ages. That means that the act of coming up with ideas and executing them is very much a combination of both conceptual and experimental.