Why Are Older People More Conservative?
Decoding the politics of aging.
Posted October 11, 2014 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Older and younger generations have always clashed about values (you can test yours here). Typically, these clashes result from younger people being more liberal, and older people more conservative. This is somewhat ironic since older people were also quite liberal when they were young, and younger people will become more conservative when they grow old. So what explains age differences in conservatism, and why do people become more right-wing, authoritarian, and rigid as they age?
The first reason is personality. Indeed, a review of 92 scientific studies shows that intellectual curiosity tends to decline in old age and that this decline explains age-related increases in conservatism. At any age, people differ in their typical levels of curiosity, and these differences have been attributed to the broader personality trait of Openness to Experience. Higher levels of Openness have been associated not only with aesthetic and cultural interests but also with a general tendency to seek emotionally stimulating and adrenalizing activities (e.g., from scuba diving to bungee jumping; from drugs to unprotected sex). Furthermore, open people are also more likely to display counter-conformist attitudes, challenge the status quo and disrespect authority. Although these qualities make high Openness a potential threat to society, Openness is also the source of creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, as well as an intellectual antidote to totalitarianism, injustice and prejudice.
The second is judgment, in particular, information-processing capacity. In most people (and I’m sorry to break the news) the speed of information-processing, a core ingredient of judgment and intelligence, peaks around the mid-20s. To make matters worse, most people become considerably slower after their mid-40s, with a substantial deceleration after their 60s. The good news, however, is that slower does not necessarily mean dumber. In fact, older people are better able to rely on knowledge, experience, and expertise, so they are not as affected by slower information-processing capacity. However, in order to retrieve knowledge more efficiently it is essential that they economize thinking, and seeing things in more categorical or “black-or-white” terms does make for more frugal and efficient thinking. In line, a review of 88 studies in 12 countries shows that older people are generally less tolerant of ambiguity, and have a higher need for closure and structure. This is often manifested by their stronger set of principles and rules, and a tendency to dismiss information that conflicts with their views. In addition, older people are also more likely to make categorical judgments about events, things, or people. This often involves acting in more prejudiced ways – to pre-judge means to judge before really judging – because in older ages preserving old knowledge is more important than acquiring new knowledge.
The third and final reason is familiarity. As we grow older, our experiences become more constrained and predictable. This is partly adaptive; order and structure enable us to navigate the world in autopilot, whereas change requires proactive adaptation, effort, and improvisation. In fact, at any point in life change is disruptive and taxing, but it is especially stressful when we are old. Thus, conservatism increases familiarity, which in turn increases conservatism. In line, research has shown that in older age conservatism is positively related to self-esteem. The implication is that remaining open-minded when you are old may cause not only counterproductive uncertainty, but also insecurity and self-doubt.
Of course, all these are just generalizations and they do not apply to all individuals, young or old. To some extent, every individual is unique, and the developmental patterns of change and stability in personality and political orientation will never be identical for any two individuals. Interestingly, there is also compelling evidence for the idea that people become more exaggerated versions of themselves when they age. In that sense, people are just like wine: the good ones get better with age; the bad ones worse.
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