The age effect on decision making and cognitive Control

Age effects on decision making and cognitive ability study, as tested in a simulator.

In 2010, Kennedy, Reade, Taylor and Yesavage conducted a study to explore how relevant age is as a contributor to decision making and cognitive control in the cockpit[1]. This study was performed under two marginally different weather conditions in a simulator, in which one was acceptable to proceed with a landing, and the other was unacceptable to land due to weather visibility restrictions. This article summarizes their findings in regards to age affects on decision making and cognitive performance. All parts of the table represent decision making skills except for boundary hits which represents cognitive ability.

Landing decision accuracy
Group Under 40 Over 40
landing in safe conditions 0.71* 0.68
Landing in unsafe conditions 0.25* (0.45) 0.44 (0.51)
Response bias 0.34 0.17*
Boundary hits 1.50* (2.11) 3.35* (3.69)
* Rounded to 2 d.p, parenthesis denote 1 SD

The higher scores for boundary hits and landing in unsafe conditions indicate more errors and worse performance therefore a score of 0 is the highest possible score. In regards to landing in safe conditions, the highest possible score is 1, and a higher response bias indicates a higher tendency to avoid landing.

  • The results of this analysis shows that a greater number of younger pilots made the right decision to go-around in unsafe conditions, and illustrates that younger pilots have a greater cognitive ability displayed by lower number of boundary hits.



  • To test their decision making skills, pilots flew three approaches in varied weather conditions. Two approaches were designed to be safe and one approach was designed to be unsafe, therefore pilots with a flawless simulator session would have landed twice in safe conditions and executed a go-around once as designed. They were judged on their decision of whether to land or go-around in safe and unsafe minimum cloud base. To test their cognitive ability the rate of movement of the ailerons were measured and correlated with their precision on the assigned path.


  • Seventy two Instrument Flight Rated pilots aged 19-79 were tested at a time of their choice between 9 am and 5 pm. The mean age for the under 40 pilots was 31.4 years old, and the mean age for pilots over 40 was 55.3.


  • Frasca 141 flight simulator without motion, vibration and sound incorporated. Data collection was carried out by DEll Precision workstation and custom C++OpenGL Linux software.

Data analysis

  • The study tested pilots on three approaches with with an uneven ratio of safe and unsafe conditions, therefore results had to be adjusted to get a standard score. In the original study he scores were shown to exaggerate the decision to conduct a safe landing in regards to younger pilots.
  • The study did not take into account recent number of flying hours, as currency and practice of skills are how humans improve and stop stagnation. Therefore a participant, regardless of age could be of a low ability due to lack of cockpit time, or have a high ability due to allot of practice. This limited the ability to calculate a mean score for landing in safe conditions as the scores had been adjusted prior to being published.

Want to know more?

The following link provides an abstract of the study that this page was based on and an option to purchase the full study.
A study of age and expertise effects in the cockpit.

Contributors to this page


Woody O.F Andrew (2013). Massey University, New Zealand.

1. Kennedy, Q., Taylor, J. L., Reade, G., & Yesavage, J. A. (2010). Age and expertise effects in aviation decision making and flight control in a flight simulator. Aviation, space, and environmental medicine, 81(5), 489.

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