- Behaviors that help others have an important role in healthy aging and addressing global challenges like COVID-19.
- Older people are relatively better at learning and more willing to put in effort when it helps others than young people.
- Helping may also be more biased in older adults, who show a stronger preference to help their “in-group”—people in the same country.
The start of 2022 marks the second year of the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing, a global collaboration to “improve the lives of older people, their families, and the communities in which they live.” Maximizing health and well-being as we age is a particularly pressing issue. Between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years old will nearly double, from 12 percent to 22 percent. Prosocial behaviors—actions that help others—are vital for health and well-being throughout life. As well as the impact on the people we are helping, these behaviors strengthen social relationships and improve mental and physical health, key factors in healthy aging. It is therefore essential to understand whether our willingness to help others changes with age.
Helping when it’s effortful
Many of the ways we help others require effort: for example, volunteering at a food bank or helping someone move house. In experiments to measure effortful prosocial behaviors, participants choose whether or not to squeeze a device to gain money. Sometimes the money is for the participant themselves, but on prosocial rounds, they can put in the effort to gain money for someone else.
Typically, people are more motivated to work for themselves than someone else, although they are sometimes willing to help, particularly if the reward for the other person is high or the effort required is low. However, comparing older adults (age 55-84) with younger adults (age 18-36), we strikingly found that older people were relatively more willing to put in the physical effort to help others than the younger participants.
Learning to help
Another key aspect of helping is learning how our actions affect others. If we repeat helpful actions, this suggests we value positive outcomes for the other person, and they “reinforce” behavior. Just like exerting effort, people typically learn best for themselves but do also learn to maximize rewards for others.
Learning is particularly relevant for aging as learning abilities decline with age. Our research confirmed this age-related decrease in the ability to learn for oneself. Intriguingly, when learning benefited another person, older people were just as good at learning as young people. Unlike young people, older adults didn’t differ in how well they learned for others compared to themselves; they were more prosocial in their learning.
Our experiments on learning and exerting effort for others show that older adults are more prosocial. Other research has also found older people donate more to charity, are more motivated to earn money for charities, and are more benevolent than young people. Increased prosocial behavior in older adults has been explained by social, cognitive, and biological accounts, and it’s likely that multiple factors play a role. For example, Socioemotional Selectivity Theory suggests shrinking time horizons shifts priority towards goals that have social and emotional benefits, and these can be achieved through prosocial behaviors. Evidence that older monkeys maintain high levels of interest in other monkeys, despite decreased interest in non-social rewards, suggests that biological changes we share with other species might also explain age-related changes in social behaviors.
Helping everyone equally?
In addition to the evidence that older people are more prosocial, other research has shown older people are more likely to endorse racial stereotypes and show higher levels of some negative social behaviors. In another study, we, therefore, compared willingness to donate to a charity helping people in the same country with one helping people abroad to test whether older adults are more prosocial but also more biased in who they were willing to help.
The data in this study came from an international survey on COVID-19 that measured traits and prosocial behaviors in over 46,500 people from 67 countries. This sample enabled us to test whether age-related differences in prosocial behavior are consistent across different countries. Older adults around the world were indeed more prosocial. They were willing to donate more money to charity overall and reported higher levels of social distancing to protect others during the pandemic than younger participants. These results were shown in the majority of countries and remained the same when we accounted for other factors that change with age, such as people’s wealth and physical health.
However, as we predicted, although older people were more generous overall, they were also more biased. Younger people gave more equal amounts to the national and the international charities, whereas older people gave less internationally.
Older adults also had stronger self-reported preferences for their “in-group”—people in the same country. They were more likely to report identifying with their country and agreed more strongly with statements such as “My country deserves special treatment.” As we would predict, participants who reported stronger in-group preferences gave more to the national charity but less to the international charity. Therefore, the fact that older people had higher scores on this in-group preference trait helped to explain their patterns of charitable donations to some extent.
Overall, our research shows older adults are more prosocial compared to younger adults. These findings could have implications for predicting the social and economic impacts of aging populations. However, our results also fit with the idea that older people have stronger preferences to help people in their own country compared to people abroad. As the challenges of the 21st century become increasingly global in nature and rely on people helping others, it is vital we understand how different age groups might respond. With countries implementing cuts to foreign aid budgets, there will be an increasing reliance on global charities. Understanding the giving preferences and inclinations of different age groups could therefore be extremely important in addressing challenges such as COVID-19 and climate change.
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