Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

You’re only as old as you feel, and I feel like #&(*$@

Feeling old affects attitudes about yourself and others.

Old people SignWhen you're young and something hurts, you start thinking about what you could possibly have done before that made your body ache. As you get older, there are days when something hurts, and you stop looking for reasons from the previous day that caused the pain and start assuming that it must be yet another sign that you are getting older.

Those days are unpleasant.

A study in the April, 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology by Richard Eibach, Steven Mock, and Elizabeth Courtney examined the effects of feeling old on evaluations of the self and general attitudes.

First, these authors came up with clever ways of making people feel old. The participants in these studies were all adults over the age of 40. In one study, some people were given a page of text that was really hard to read. The font was small and the contrast was low. Others were given the same text in a larger font with high contrast. The hard-to-read page made people feel older than the easy-to-read page. In another study, people were shown a number of strings of punctuation and letters such as :-Y and were either told that they were emoticons used by young people to text or abbreviations used by professional stenographers. They were asked what these items meant. Being told that the strings were emoticons made people feel older than being told that they were used by stenographers.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

What is the impact of being made to feel older?

Old man with caneIn one study, people unscrambled sentences that either had words that referred to positive stereotypes of being old (like wise) or to negative stereotypes of being old (like feeble). This manipulation made it easier to think about positive or negative stereotypes. If you were made to feel old, then that led you to think about the meaning of being old. If you had just encountered words relating to a positive stereotype about being old, you felt better about yourself than if you had just encountered words related to a negative stereotype. If you weren't made to feel old, then neither of these stereotypes had any effect on your feelings about yourself.

In a final study, people either read a passage about how hard it is for old people to learn new things, or they read a passage suggesting that even old people can learn new things fairly easily. Next, they were either made to feel old (using the emoticon manipulation) or not. Finally, the participants were asked about their attitudes toward traditional morality and their attitudes about same-sex marriage. Those people who were made to feel old and also were made to feel like they cannot learn new things expressed more support for traditional moral values and less support for same-sex marriage than those who were told that old people can learn new things or those people who were not made to feel old.

These results are important. They suggest two important points. First, you are only as old as you feel. Feeling old is a state of mind more than a state of body. Second, how you interpret your own aging is up to you. You can choose to have a positive attitude about growing older or a negative one.

As it turns out, old dogs learn new tricks every day.

Follow me on Twitter.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

more...

Subscribe to Ulterior Motives

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?