Saturday, January 11, 2014

Are We Getting more Conservative as We Age?

If you are young and not liberal, then you have no heart; but if you are old and not conservative, then you have no brain.

Disraeli or Churchill

You may have seen on the Web quote, widely attributed to Winston Churchill, "If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain."  This version is slightly different than the one offered as epigraph, and it looks like such attribution may not be accurate. "Surely Churchill can't have used the words attributed to him. He'd been a Conservative at 15 and a Liberal at 35! And would he have talked so disrespectfully of [his wife] Clemmie, who is generally thought to have been a lifelong Liberal?" – claims Historian Paul Addison from Edinburgh University.

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Well, the quote may belong to Churchill or not, it is a common belief that mature people tend to be more conservative than youngsters. But is that what really happens?

Ongoing statistical researches fail, however, to back up the stereotype. While there is certain evidence that today's seniors may be relatively more conservative than today's youth, that's not because older folks are more conservative than they use to be. Instead, our modern elders likely came of age at a time when the political situation favored more conservative views.

In fact, studies show that people may actually get more liberal over time when it comes to certain kinds of beliefs. That suggests that we are not pre-determined to get stodgy, set in our ways or otherwise more inflexible in our retirement years. Contrary to popular belief, old age can be an open-minded and enlightening time.

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Danigelis and collaborators Stephen Cutler of the University of Vermont and Melissa Hardy of Pennsylvania State University analyzed data from the U.S. General Social Surveys of 46,510 Americans between 1972 and 2004. While the surveys did not provide data for the same individuals at different stages, they represented snapshots of the changing attitudes of respondents in different age cohorts over time. The researchers corrected for the fact that the age groups at different survey times are made of up new members with unique baseline opinions.

"Pigeonholing older people into these rigid attitude boxes or conservative boxes is not a good idea," said Nick Dangelis.

"Rather, when they were born, what experiences they had growing up, as well as political, social and economic events have a lot to do with how people behave," he said. "Our results are showing that these have profound effects."

Early in American history, elders ran the country's governmental, religious and political institutions, and they were revered and even feared by younger generations. But those reins of power began to loosen in the early 1800s, Dangelis said. By the middle of that century, society's focus had turned to the value of youth, as expressed by Thoreau and the Romantics, who often emphasized the negatives of old age.
As young people gained power, they gave the nation a refreshing sense of freedom and progress.

Today, the image is ubiquitous in popular culture: A rigid gray-haired grump, who is closed-minded and set in his or her curmudgeonly ways. To some extent, that belief emerged from a real observation: Surveys that ask about attitudes towards things like premarital sex or race relations reveal that people older than 60 express more conservative views than people between the ages of 25 and 39. By extension came the assumption that older people used to be more liberal.

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The problem with these studies, Dangelis said, is that they compare two demographics at one moment in time without offering a picture of the older cohort when they were younger. So, in a 2007 paper in the journal American Sociological Review, Dangelis and colleagues started to address that problem.
Using surveys taken between 1972 and 2004, the researchers found that groups of people actually became more tolerant, not more conservative, after age 60 -- calling into question some enduring myths about old age. Survey questions addressed attitudes about boundaries of privacy (such as the right to die), historically subordinate groups (such as women and Blacks) and civil liberties (for groups like atheists).

Karl Pillemer, a sociologist and gerontologist at Cornell University, who conducted more than 1,000 in-depth interviews with seniors for his book, puts it this way: “Flexibility often trumps rigidity.  Older people said very surprising things about being old. One of those things was that old age was a quest for adventure and a time to try new things. Many older people describe themselves as feeling freer or clearer”.

Late in life, apparently, people often become more open, more tolerant, and more appreciative of compassion. Even if they started out conservative, they may become less extreme in their conservatism.
Many describe themselves as open to ideas or open to new ways of thinking, and they come back to a sense of much greater tolerance for different points of view. I had someone say, “I used to think I was always right, but now that I'm 80, I'm not so sure I'm always right.”

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Needless to say, those cultural and historical milestones may affect the process in different ways, making the effect age and generation on voting proclivities to become interactive. Big events affect how age and generation matters: the voting patterns of individuals in eight post-Soviet countries in the elections of 1989 or 1990 reveal disproportionately conservative (in the sense of preserving the status quo) voting among older voters.  Younger voters, even wealthier younger voters who presumably enjoyed the benefits of previous Leninist regimes, selected change-oriented political parties at a much higher rate.  Experts, however, argue that this finding is not generic and it is due to a generational effect during the profound political transition; the effects of the Communist-era socialization of older voters were magnified in the context of the rapid social change.

So, if not because of age, why people may become more conservative with time? Here is a list of 5 surprising components, which found to affect substantially political views:

1.       Distraction. Several studies have shown that “cognitive load”—in other words, requiring people to do something that consumes most or all of their attention, like listening to a piece of music and noting how many tones come before each change in pitch—produces a conservative political shift.

In one study, for instance, liberal and conservative subjects were asked whether government health care should be extended to a hypothetical group of AIDS victims who were responsible for their own fates (they’d contracted the disease while knowing the risks, and having unprotected sex anyway). Liberals who were not under load—not distracted—wanted to help such people, despite the fact that they were personally responsible for their plight. But liberals under load were much more like conservatives, appearing to reason that this group of AIDS victims had gotten what they deserved. (Cognitive load did not appear to change the view of conservatives in the study.)

2.       Drunkenness. Alcohol intoxication is not unlike cognitive load, in that it cuts down the capacity for in-depth, nuanced thinking, and privileges economical, quick responses. Sure enough, in a recent study of 85 bar patrons, blood alcohol content was related to increased political conservatism for liberals and conservatives alike.

The drinkers still knew whether they were liberal or conservative, of course. But when asked how much they agreed with a variety of statements of political principles—like, “Production and trade should be free of government interference”—higher blood alcohol content was associated with giving more conservative answers.

3.       Time Pressure. In another study reported in the same paper, participants were asked how much they endorsed a variety of politically tinged words, like “authority” and “civil rights.” In one study condition, they had to see the term and respond to it in about 1.5 seconds; in the other condition, they had 4 seconds to do so. This made a political difference: Subjects under time pressure were more likely to endorse conservative terms.

4.       Cleanliness/Purity. In another fascinating study, subjects who were asked political questions near a hand sanitizer, or asked to use a hand wipe before responding, also showed a rightward shift. In this case, political conservatism was being tied not to distraction, but rather, to disgust sensitivity—an emotional response to preserve bodily purity.

5.       Fear. After 9/11, public support for President George W. Bush also immediately swelled. In fact, a study showed that Bush’s approval ratings increased whenever terror alert levels were issued by the Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of “liberal hawks” who wanted to attack Iraq was much remarked upon. Why is that?

The answer seems to involve the amygdala, a region of the emotional brain that conditions our life-preserving responses to danger. Its activity seems to have political implications: When we’re deeply afraid, tough and decisive leaders are more appealing to us. So are militaristic and absolute responses, like going to war and the death penalty; things like civil liberties, meanwhile, matter less to us.

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