What’s Good About Growing Old

In our book (link to introduction), we reviewed some of the research in cognitive aging that essentially shows that aging is associated with declines in some abilities but increases in others.

For example, although a sixty year old man may not be able to beat his granddaughter in the computer puzzle game Tetris, the elder will invariably beat the youth in games of knowledge such as the board game Trivial Pursuit or the television quiz show Jeopardy.  Design of displays and technology can capitalize on these capabilities to ameliorate the limitations that can come with age.

This very short article in the Smithsonian reviews a few new research studies that show that aging is associated with more nuanced, perhaps better, emotional decision making.  It’s nice to see mainstream coverage of cognitive aging research especially when it conveys the complexity of the aging process.

People also learn how to deal with social conflicts more effectively. For a 2010 study, researchers at the University of Michigan presented “Dear Abby” letters to 200 people and asked what advice they would give. Subjects in their 60s were better than younger ones at imagining different points of view, thinking of multiple resolutions and suggesting compromises.

One of the leaders in that area of aging and social cognition was Dr. Fredda Blanchard-Fields (my undergraduate mentor).  She was a contemporary of Dr. Carstensen (cited in the article) who studied social cognition and aging in great depth.

A little “inside baseball” story:  In one of my earliest publications (in 2001 when I was an undergraduate student and before I discovered human factors), we found that contrary to stereotypes, being older did not automatically equate to having “traditional family values” (i’m greatly simplifying):

Findings provide little support for common stereotypes regarding age and gender differences in traditionalism. Instead, 3 individual-differences variables predicted traditional family values: need for closure, religiosity, and verbal ability. Outcomes argue for the need to identify multiple mechanisms by which personal characteristics such as need for closure and religiosity influence traditionalism in social belief systems and argue against reliance on status variables such as age and gender as explanatory variables for these beliefs.

Blanchard-Fields, F., Hertzog, C., Stein, R., and Pak, R. (2001). Beyond stereotyped predictors of traditional family values. Psychology and Aging, 16(3), 483-496.

Right before the paper went to press, we were girding ourselves for a backlash from more conservative elements of the media.  Thankfully, there wasn’t a peep!