How Not to Be Ageist

Are you making an attribution error?

Posted Mar 12, 2018

David Marcu Unsplash
Source: David Marcu Unsplash

Not long ago, an American rocket engineer named Destin Sandlin hopped on a bicycle in a public square in Amsterdam. It looked like he might be zipping off to do an errand. But something was wrong. When he tried to pedal away he couldn’t balance. For 20 minutes he tried and failed. He just couldn’t keep the bike upright for more than half a second. It got a little embarrassing. People watching thought he had some sort of disability. How else to explain why a healthy-looking guy can’t ride a bicycle?

Turns out, Destin Sandlin can ride a bicycle. Or at least he could. Sandlin learned to ride a bike when he was three years old—way earlier than most of us. But recently he’d tried a radical experiment: he painstakingly unlearned how to ride a bike. (The full version of the story is brilliantly told here. The short of it is, Sandlin taught himself to ride a specially designed “reverse” bike—which turns right when you steer it left and vice-versa‚—thereby effectively re-wiring his brain.)

And now, here in this Dutch square, he was trying to unlearn that unlearning. Trying to resurrect a skill that was second-nature for so long before he monkeyed with it.

“You think I’m kidding, don’t you?” Sandlin told one bemused onlooker who figured this display of ineptitude must be a put-on. “I’m not.”

This is a funny way to start a story about ageism. But stay with me, it’ll make sense.

Those Dutch bystanders weren’t quite seeing what they thought they were seeing. The thirtysomething cyclist they were watching botch this kindergarten-level skill seemed a step behind most everyone else. But in fact, he was a step ahead. Sandlin had long passed through let’s call it “level 1” learning about bicycle riding. Then, after eight months of practice, he learned to ride the reverse bicycle, which took him to level 2. Unlearning that learning, which he finally managed after 20 minutes of furious concentration, took him to Level 3. Which looked to all the world like Level 1, but secretly contained layers of effort and experience—of bodily wisdom, if you like.

Sandlin’s experiment popped to mind recently as I was catching up with Ellen Langer, the Harvard psychologist. She has a theory about stages of growth and the judgments we make about them.

“Think about people who read The New Yorker (magazine), she says. “Level 1 is people who don’t read The New Yorker—never have. Level 2 is people who do read it. Level 3 is people who used to read it but for whatever reason”—maybe their life is so chockablock interesting that they don’t have time, or maybe they are novelists trying to distance themselves from other literary voices till they finish writing their book—“they’ve stopped.” Level 3 looks just like Level 1. To the folks on the subway with their noses buried in the New Yorker, the Level 3s look a step behind. But in fact, they’re a step ahead.

Langer says she sees this particular attribution error all the time.

The four-year-old kid has no answers, just questions: Why why why? Likewise, the 80-year-old Tibetan monk has no answers, just questions. The m.o. of these two individuals is the same. The difference is, they are on opposite sides of level 2— where the rest of us are stuck, blurting out answers all the livelong day.

The thought-check “Could I be making an attribution error here?” is a worthwhile habit to cultivate before you rush to judgment of every display of apparent incompetence you see. Is this person actually a step behind, or maybe a step ahead?

Think of three caregivers. Caregiver A fails to come to the aid of a little kid or a senior who’s struggling with some problem; she’s operating at Level 1. Caregiver B notices the struggle and swans in to help; she’s at Level 2. Caregiver C also notices but refrains from helping because she knows it’s better for the person to do it him- or herself. Caregiver C’s at Level 3. Informed neglect, let’s call it. “It looks the same as level 1,” Langer says, “but it’s got more wisdom.”

Ageism happens when young people mistake Level 3 for Level 1.

Consider an 18-year-old in a Camaro, caught on the freeway behind a grey-haired woman in a Nissan Leaf. The Leaf driver is going pretty slow. In the head of the teenage driver all sorts of negative stereotypes bloom: This woman’s inept. Her eyesight is poor. Her reflexes are shot. “But the truth is, you can get killed behind the wheel—so it’s actually a smart thing to drive carefully,” Langer says. The tailgater muttering under his breath about this out-to-lunch driver “is assuming Level 1 but he’s actually looking at Level 3.” The kid will understand when he crashes. Or when he gets soaked paying his larcenously high auto insurance. Or when he realizes the Camaro is not actually all that cool. The senior seemed a step behind. But she was actually a step ahead.

“Some of the things that we disparage in older people are in fact things that we should admire and learn from,” Langer says.

Older people have figured a lot of things out. The solutions tend to be simple, analog, elegant, boring. A sage can look like a fool to someone who is only halfway through the trip.