Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why do some people become grumpy senior citizens?

When I was in my 20s I could not imagine what it might be like to be old. I would not have believed it possible that one day the government would issue me with a ‘Seniors Card’ declaring that I am ‘a valued member of our community’ and asking for ‘every courtesy’ to be extended to me.

Actually, I still find it hard to believe that I have been given this card. Wasn’t I a valued member of the community when I was younger? Aren’t young people and old people equally entitled to courtesy?

Perhaps the purpose of the card is to warn young people that old people can be grumpy. A few days ago an elderly person - a person considerably older than me who has to cope with considerable pain and limited mobility - told me that a young man in a health services profession recently made a remark to her along the lines: ‘So, we are feeling a bit grumpy today, are we?’ She apparently tore strips off him (metaphorically) to teach him a lesson in courtesy. He now knows how she behaves when she is feeling particularly grumpy!

A few days ago another person mentioned to me that she had observed that the minor irritating behaviours that some of her friends had displayed when they were young have tended to worsen as they grow older. I think I have observed something similar, but I wonder whether the behaviour actually worsens or whether my threshold for irritation might have fallen as I have aged. There may be tendencies for both of these things to occur in some people. Some other people seem to improve with age.

The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at HomeIn his book, ‘The Upside of Irrationality’, Dan Ariely provides a discussion of the long-term effects of short-term emotions, which may be helpful to an understanding of how some people develop habits of grumpiness. He provides experimental evidence that the way we respond to particular events when we are angry (even for unrelated reasons) can have an ongoing influence on our future decisions in similar circumstances and even become part of our identity.

The experiment involved influencing the mood of participants by showing them different videos chosen to make them feel either angry or happy, observing how they then respond to unfair treatment (unfair offers in the ultimatum game) and then observing how fairly they treat other people when roles are reversed. As might be expected, the angry participants were more likely to reject unfair offers. However, the offers that those participants subsequently made to other people tended to be fairer than the offers made by the happy participants who had accepted the unfair offers.

Ariely’s interpretation of the results seems to me to make sense. He suggests that the angry people tended to attribute their decision to reject the offer to its unfairness rather than to their emotional state and then to act as though they think other people are just like themselves. Similarly, the happy people who accepted the unfair offer would have tended to think that other people would be similarly willing to accept unfair offers. In both cases the decision made has an ongoing influence over future decisions, after the initial emotional state has passed.

The results are consistent with the idea that individuals have a tendency to interpret their own past decisions to indicate the kind of person they are and how the world works. A grumpy person who reacts negatively when some other person is perceived to be disregarding his or her commands is not necessarily acting out of character when showing generosity towards that person at other times. A decision made at the heat of the moment at some time in the distant past could have initiated a pattern of behaviour and sense of identity that prompts the person to act in this way. (The grumpiness shown at a particular time could, of course, be aggravated by pain or frustration.)

It is sometimes argued that society benefits from the actions of people who are prepared to sacrifice their own well-being in order to punish people who act unfairly. However, people who engage in such vindictive behaviour do not necessarily spend much time feeling grumpy. Chronic grumpiness is obviously undesirable for the individuals directly affected as well as for the victims of their grumpiness.

Dan Ariely’s research findings suggest an additional remedy for those of us who are concerned that we might become grumpier as we grow older. We should avoid making decisions while we feel grumpy!


Lorraine said...

Why do some people classify fairness as a social pathology? Those who are more frank in their social darwinism (or libertarianism, take your pick, same damn thing) say things like 'life is supposed to be unfair, get used to it.' I think most people (let's say, normal people) would classify those people as far grumpier than people who value fairness, even if 'vindictively' at times.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Lorraine
I agree that people who say things like, 'life is supposed to be unfair' do tend to be grumpy(and mean). However, I don't think many libertarians would say that life is supposed to be unfair. The benefits of norms of fairness (just conduct) are widely recognized by libertarians.

Would libertarians tend to make and accept unfair offers in the ultimatum game? Perhaps. My reason for expecting this is that many libertarians have training in economics and their behaviour has been influenced by the economic rationality assumption - despite the fact that it is just a behavioural assumption used in economic analysis rather than a guide to behaviour.

Lorraine said...

The ultimatum game appears to be about psychology. I doubt that has any bearing on philosophy. If I were made to play the ultimatum game, I'd probably come out of it with a case of PTSD.

Winton Bates said...

Yes, the ultimatum game is about psychology. I don't think I would ever reject an offer if I didn't know who I was playing against and I was sure that only one game would be played. However, things are different in the real world where we often know who is making the offer and the game is ongoing so there is potential to get some benefit from encouraging them to behave more fairly in future.

Thought Bubble Ten said...

The short answer to your question is: People become grumpy senior citizens because it is a natural progression from being grumpy junior citizens :)

As for the long answer...oh, where do I start??? Along with advancing chronologically, the senior citizen must be compensated for being subtly marginalized out of mainstream society. This is done with token recognition by governments and well-meaning, *younger* citizens. Could this tokenism contribute to their grumpiness, do you think?

The fact that a number i.e. an age is used to determine a person's status in society could also be another reason for grumpiness.

Wouldn't it be more polite/respectful to ask a person if they would like to be considered a *senior* citizen and be bestowed with the *benefits* that this status attracts? After all, not every advancing person wishes to be placed in the category of *senior* citizen.

While there may be some monetary perks that apply, there could well be less beneficial psychological effects from this kind of categorization for the more *youthful* senior citizen...

Just a few thoughts...:)

Winton Bates said...

TBT: I’m sorry it has taken me so long to respond. Over the last few days it has been difficult to get the time to give your comments the attention they deserve.

I think your short answer is basically right. However, some people do cultivate grumpiness. The happy boy can choose to become an ‘angry young man’ (e.g. angry with the politicians who get us involved in unwinnable foreign wars) and then end up as a grumpy old man. I know how easy that is :)

I hadn’t previously thought of the senior’s card as compensation for the marginalization of old people. You might be right about that. There is still some age-based discrimination around.

Could this tokenism contribute to grumpiness? Yes, I think it could. There are certainly a lot of people around (some less than 50 years old) who complain that they are discriminated against in the workforce. My feeling is that this kind of discrimination tends to sort itself out. There is a strong incentive for enlightened employers to seek out people who are discriminated against by other employers. They tend to get better value for money from the people they employ.

Do youthful senior citizens dislike categorization as ‘senior citizens’? I can only speak for myself. I don’t like the senior citizen label. If people want to say I am old, let them say it. I don’t consider myself to be an old man yet, but I would much rather be spoken of as an old man than as a senior citizen.

The financial perks associated with the card are significant – particularly in relation to public transport in capital cities. I think it is a scandal that this benefit is provided to old people without any means test (except that they are not working full time) and without any requirement that it is only available for use in off-peak periods.

However, my views may be coloured by the fact that I feel that I received positive discrimination in my favour as I aged. I think a lot of people I worked with actually thought I had become wiser as I became older.

Thought Bubble Ten said...

Hey Winton, no need to apologize...I know how busy you've been with your mowing LOL

Let me tell you what I think about aging and grumpiness. I think that grumpiness makes a person age. So, you had better get out of your grumpiness over unwinnable wars, or as I see it, any war, winnable or otherwise :)

We are getting better in some ways wrt to using prior knowledge in the workforce but the tendency to assume various things about a person based on their age is still deeply engrained in most people's minds.

Notice how many people feel compelled to ask your age, whether directly or obtusely so that they can compartmentalize you with their learned correlates???

Are you sure they weren't just being polite wrt to your increased wisdom??? Ha ha ha...just kidding...I'm sure you are wiser now than you were before but I'd put that down to learning from experiences rather than some number...although 42 would be a good one if you had to choose a number (a la Hitchhikers Guide... :))

Thought Bubble Ten said...

PS I just got this in my mailbox and had to share it given its timely relevance...

Also, if you get the chance, do check out my new blog:

Winton Bates said...

TBT: Hmm, well first there was the mowing, then there were the other things - metaphorical mowing:)

Thought Bubble Ten said...

Ha ha...'metaphorical mowing'...oh, I like the sound of if the mower, mowing and mowed realized their oneness, there would be a blissful experience... :)

Bibiana said...

I have met angry, discontented people of ALL ages. I don't think the seniors are the only ones. I am 59 and suffer from arthritis, but I am a cheerful, friendly person.

Winton Bates said...

Your comment gives me the opportunity to mention that research findings suggest that people generally tend to become happier as they age - at least until they become very old. So, there is a good chance that you will become even more cheerful over the next decade or so.