Why we think and behave differently as we age: part 2

Thinking and ageing
This article is the second of a two-part series in which we explore some of the latest insights around cognitive ageing. In the first article we considered two truths; the old as a source of experienced wisdom and how old people become more reliant on – often effective - mental shortcuts, rules of thumb and gut-based ‘System 1 decision-making’ based on experience. In our second article we analyse two further truths; why the old tend to look on the bright side of life but also how they are more susceptible to misinformation.
1) Always look on the bright side of life!
One finding that is perhaps more surprising is that older people are actually happier than the young, generally experiencing less stress, worry or anger.  Laura Carstensen, Professor of Psychology and Public Policy and Founding Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity notes that: 
“The more we learn about aging, the clearer it becomes that a sweeping downward course is grossly inaccurate. […] Emotional aspects of life improve [meaning] older people are happy. They're happier than middle-aged people, and younger people certainly. Study after study is coming to the same conclusion.” 
This change in life satisfaction is thought to stem from the fact that older individuals have a greater tendency to focus on, seek out and remember positive emotional experiences, creating positive affect and to find positive information more salient whilst either not noticing or forgetting negative messages. Research findings supporting this are numerous. For example: 
  • In one study, Laura Carstensen and Helene Fung found that, relative to their younger peers, older adults showed far greater preference for emotional advertisements relying on positive affect than others and tended to remember them better. Older people preferred emotion-based airline slogans such as ‘Take flight…your loved ones await’ to slogans such as ‘Take flight…expand your horizons’. Notably they also demonstrated better recall of both the slogan and airline brand when these were framed positively.  
  • Another study testing picture recall for positive, neutral and negative images found that although the old remembered fewer pictures overall compared to younger participants, they tended to remember a greater proportion of positive pictures (such as a boy with his grandfather, or an affectionate couple) than negative pictures (such as a couple in a hospital or images of a plane crash), whereas the young tended to recall greater proportions of negative images. 
Older people’s tendency to focus on the positive is thought to be related to the stage they have reached in life. Gone are the goal striving, purpose-seeking, horizon-expanding days of their youth. Instead they focus on what brings emotional satisfaction, either through meaningful relationships (such as grandchildren or friendships), or ways in which to savour life, perhaps because they perceive their life is nearer its end than its beginning – a phenomenon with the wonderful name ‘Socioemotional Selectivity Theory’.  
These findings are also supported by neuroscience, with fMRI studies suggesting that ageing is associated with increased activity in the amygdala for positive information and events, combined with an increase in prefrontal cortex activity, regions particularly associated with the regulation of emotions. 
 2) Older people are more susceptible to misinformation, myths and false claims
 Although we are all susceptible to mere exposure effects – when we like something simply because it feels more familiar, and illusion of truth effects – when we believe something to be true because it feels familiar, older people are even more likely to be affected by these effects and are therefore more susceptible to scams, myths and false claims and information. 
This is because older people’s working memory declines meaning that when they read or hear a piece of information and are subsequently told the information is false, they may later forget this significant detail and mistakenly remember it to be true. Indeed, studies demonstrate this. For example:
  • One study by Yiwei Chen and Fredda Blanchard-Fields found that given two criminal reports to read, with true information printed in black and false information printed in red, older people were more likely to be influenced by the false statements in their subsequent judgements. Younger people’s judgements were scarcely affected by the presence of the false information – except when multi-tasking – when their judgements were as affected by the false information as older people.  (The implications of this finding for the technology distracted/multi-tasking young are worrying.)
  • In a series of experiments by Ian Skurnik, Carolyn Yoon, Denise Park and Norbert Schwarz, older and younger adults were presented with statements such as “Aspirin destroys tooth enamel” and “Corn chips contain twice as much fat as potato chips” – statements which were immediately declared true or false by the experimenters. Although repeatedly declaring a statement as false helped older adults to remember and identify that statement as false, in the longer term they still misremembered it as true. 
  • Older people may fall prey to scams when misinformation is presented in such a way that it appears that their own memory is at fault.  This is the ‘As I have already told you and you have already agreed to..’ form of misinformation most likely to be applied by a con artist, as in ‘I told you that the repair would cost £X and you agreed to pay.’  Research conducted by Larry Jacoby revealed that older participants were much more likely to be ‘captured’ by false memory suggestions like this than were younger participants. 
Key implications of these findings
  • Always look on the bright side of life!
This is a wonderful way to frame our older years. A time where we focus on the positive, look on the bright side and are emotionally satisfied. So when designing and writing communications for older people use positive messages rather than negative, fear-based messages. Leverage positive emotional affect in imagery and language, as older people are more likely to pay attention to it and remember it. Frame information in a positive way to steer their decision-making.
  • More susceptible to misinformation, myths and false claims
In a world where we are bombarded with information from diverse sources, many of which can be unreliable, particularly in the media and on the internet, this susceptibility to false claims amongst older people is cause for concern. Directing them to reliable sources of information and letting them know it’s best to ignore other sources is valuable.
When communicating with older people, we need to take particular care when discussing and debunking myths that we steer clear of restating false information. Focus on stating the truth instead, particularly in the main message. 
Overall series summary:
In our two-part series looking at how people’s thinking changes as they get older, we have analysed a collection of insights trying to understand the differences between the brains of older and younger people. In our  findings we suggest that we may need to revisit the assumptions we might make about older people, challenging and revising our beliefs and perhaps dispensing with some of the myths and stereotypes. 
There are notable implications and applications for communications, products and services that target older consumers – keeping in mind that there will be 2 billion people over 60 by 2050. How can we best frame and present choices and information to older people? How can we optimise their decision-making given what we know about how their brains work? 
Before we finish, there is one well-known cognitive bias to which the very old may be less susceptible. Social norms, an oft-applied concept in behavioural science, describes how we tend to want to do what others are doing, particularly those ‘like us’ in our peer groups. This is perhaps less of an influence for the very old. The story goes that a reporter once asked a 104 year old woman, “What do you think is the best thing about being 104?” Her answer? “No peer pressure.”
In this case, the old may indeed be more individual and have less regard for what others are doing and they’re apparently all the more positive and happier for that!

Read more from Crawford Hollingworth and The Behavioural Architects on our Clubhouse.