Many real-life settings require decision-makers to sort a pre-determined set of outcomes or activities into a preferred sequence, and people vary in whether they prefer to tackle the most challenging aspects first, leave them for the last, or intersperse them with less challenging outcomes. Prior research on age differences in sequence-preferences has focused on discrete and hypothetical events. The present study expands this work by examining sequence-preferences for a realistic, continuous, sustained, and cognitively challenging task.
Participants (N=121, aged 21-86) were asked to complete 10 minutes of a difficult cognitive task (2-back), 10 minutes of an easy cognitive task (1-back), and 10 minutes of rest over the course of a 30-minute interval. They could complete the tasks in any order and switch tasks as often as they wished and they were rewarded for correct performance. Additional measures included affective and physiological responses, task accuracy, time-perspective, and demographics.
The majority of participants constructed sequences with decreasing task difficulty. Preferences for the general trend of the sequence were not significantly related to age, but the number of switches among the tasks decreased with age, and task-switching tended to incur greater accuracy decrements among older as compared to younger adults.
We address potential methodological concerns, discuss theoretical implications, and consider potential real-life applications.