June 30, 2008

Research: People give older friends, family a pass on bad behavior

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - When it comes to dealing with older friends and relatives, people tend to overlook annoying or inappropriate behavior, mostly because of a fear that time with them is running out, a Purdue University researcher has found.

Karen L. Fingerman, an associate professor of child development and family studies, says actions that would spark a confrontation with a younger person likely will draw no reaction if the person is older. The finding helps explain why older people often get along better with family and friends than younger people, she says.

Earlier research has shown that older people have calmer, more positive relationships. That has been linked to how older people relate to others. Fingerman's new research shows that it's also because of how others relate to older people.

"It goes both ways. Most of the research has been focused on how the older person relates. But people are also more forgiving of older people," she says.

The results of Fingerman's study are published in the June edition of the journal Psychology and Aging.

Fingerman and her co-researchers, Laura Miller, a graduate research assistant in child development and family studies at Purdue, and Susan Charles, associate professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine, interviewed 87 people between the ages of 22 and 35 and 89 people between the ages of 65 and 77. Each was asked to answer questions about their closest non-romantic friend or family member age 18 to 35 and age 65 or older.

The questions were aimed at determining how respondents would react to the same situation -- such as rude behavior -- from someone of the same age group and someone of the different age group.

 Both younger and older people were more likely to let the behavior go unchallenged for their older friends or family members, Fingerman says.

"Faced with the exact same annoying, rude or inappropriate behavior, they would say if it were the young person, they would confront them. But if it were the older person, they would be forgiving," she says.

One reason is that people feel that they can affect the future behavior of younger people, but older people are unlikely to change, Fingerman says.

But beyond that, a key finding of the research shows that people are more willing to forgive and forget if they feel that their time with a friend or relative is limited, as it likely is with older people.

To test the theory, the participants were given a scenario in which their younger friend or relative was about to move to an isolated setting for three years. In that case, even the younger person's bad behavior would be forgiven because time was so limited.

"People changed the whole way they acted if time was limited," Fingerman says. "People are constantly making judgments about the time they have with other people.  You have the sense that there just isn't enough time left to spend it in a confrontation with them."

Fingerman says people don't apply negative stereotypes about older people to those who are their friends and family. "Look at the people who you are close to. Biases fall away," she says.

"When you really love somebody, you see them for who they are. You don't want to fight with them if you don't have much time left with them."

The study was supported by the Berner Hanley University Scholars Fund at Purdue.

Fingerman and Miller are planning a new study that will look at reactions to younger and older people committing a variety of social transgressions.

Writer: Judith Barra Austin, (765) 494-2432, jbaustin@purdue.edu

Source: Karen L. Fingerman,  (765) 496-6378, karenf@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


Saving the Best for Last: How Adults Treat Social Partners of different Ages

Karen L. Fingerman and Laura Miller, Purdue University; Susan Charles, University of California Irvine

Older adults report more positive feelings and fewer problems in their relationships than do younger adults. These positive experiences may partially reflect how people treat older adults. Social partners may treat older adults more kindly due to their sense that time remaining to interact with these older adults is limited. Younger (n = 87, age 22 to 35) and older (n = 89, age 65 to 77)  participants indicated how positively they would behave (i.e. express affection, proffer respect, send sentimental cards) and what types of conflict strategies they would use in response to hypothetical negative interactions with two close social partners, a younger adult and an older adult. Multilevel models revealed that participants were more avoidant and less confrontational when interacting with older adults than when interacting with younger adults. Time perspective of the relationship partially mediated these age differences. Younger and older participants were also more likely to select sentimental cards for older partners than for younger partners. Findings build on socioemotional selectivity theory and the social input model to suggest that social partners facilitate better relationships in late life.

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