It’s often said these days that younger generations are too sensitive, perhaps lacking the stiff upper lip mentality that Baby Boomers and generations who went before them perfected due to childhoods that witnessed conflict, financial strife and, not to mention, in a time before the Internet existed. But is the reality actually that older people are more hard-faced?
The research, conducted by the University of Chicago and presented at the annual American Psychological Association convention, found that as people get older, they are more likely to want to see those who cause others harm – whether accidental or not – be punished or condemned.
“Although older adults are capable of empathising [about] someone’s intentions when making a moral evaluation, they appear less likely to do so than younger individuals when those actions cause harm,” researcher Dr Janet Geipel said.
A series of experiments were carried out for the study, focusing on the reactions of younger adults (aged between 21 and 39) and older adults (those aged 63 to 90) to a series of harmful actions and helpful actions.
The first experiment saw 60 participants presented with eight hypothetical scenarios in which a person’s actions resulted in either a positive or negative outcome. After each scenario that resulted in a negative outcome, participants were then asked to judge the immorality of the action and the level of punishment it warranted on a scale of one to ten. Similarly, in the case of a positive outcome, they were asked to judge the goodness of the action and the appropriate level of reward.
One of the scenarios focused on a character named Joanna who was out to sea on a boat with her friend, in an area infested with poisonous jellyfish. The friend asks Joanna if it is safe to swim and, despite knowing it is not, Joanna tells the friend to “go ahead”, resulting in the friend being stung and going into shock.
Another version of the same scenario sees Joanna telling her friend to swim, having incorrectly read that the jellyfish were harmless, meaning she accidentally put her friend at risk.
Interestingly, it emerged that over-60s were more likely to condemn accidentally harmful acts and recommend that the person be punished, regardless of the person’s intentions. However there seemed to be no disparity between how young and old adults viewed actions that were unintentionally helpful.
Researchers believe that the results could relate to the cognitive decline people experience as they get older, adding that making moral judgements requires more thought than simply condemning an action as wrong. The authors believe their findings could be particularly important when it comes to the law, commenting that older jurors may be quicker to condemn without considering the defendant’s intent.
“The present results suggest that older adults may attend less to the intentions of the accused and more to the negative outcomes that the accused produced,” Geipel concluded. “Put simply, the present findings imply that older adults may be more likely to convict.”