[Paleopsych] NYT: Research Dispels Myth of the Old and Grumpy

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Research Dispels Myth of the Old and Grumpy
New York Times, 5.6.7


    Grumpy old men and women may not be so grumpy after all. Two new
    studies report that older people are better at getting along with
    others than younger people are, and much more content in their
    interpersonal relationships.

    In one study, the researchers conducted lengthy interviews with 184
    people ages 13 to 99 to determine how they solved interpersonal
    problems. Even after controlling for factors like sex and health, they
    found that the adults who were older than 80 were more likely to avoid
    conflict by waiting until things improved, while the younger people
    more often chose to leave in anger or engage in yelling and

    The older people, the researchers found, had fewer interpersonal
    difficulties to begin with, and when problems arose, they experienced
    less negative emotion and behaved less aggressively. The study appears
    in the May issue of The Journal of Gerontology: Psychological

    The second study, scheduled for publication in the June issue of
    Psychology and Aging, involved more than 1,000 people ages 25 to 74
    who completed eight successive days of phone interviews, a technique
    that the authors believe produces more reliable recollections.

    The results were similar: people 60 and older were better at
    regulating their reactions to interpersonal tension than younger
    adults, even with similar intensity and frequency of stressful

    "Although people often think of older adults as ornery, they're
    actually nicer when they have problems in their relationships," said
    Dr. Kira S. Birditt, a research fellow at the University of Michigan
    and the lead author on the two studies. "When they do feel upset,
    they're more likely to wait to see if things improve than to yell or

    It is widely believed that men and women often respond differently to
    interpersonal stress - men by withdrawing and women by insisting on a
    solution. And some research confirms this premise.

    But the two studies found no such variation between the sexes.

    Moreover, Dr. Birditt pointed out that older adults of both sexes
    appeared to be better at handling conflict not only with family but
    with co-workers, neighbors and acquaintances.

    "The type of relationship didn't matter," she said. "Older people are
    just better at it."

    And while confronting issues openly is often viewed as the best way to
    handle interpersonal problems, older adults often avoid this approach.

    "It may be that avoiding problems is good for relationships," Dr.
    Birditt said. "Particularly if it's a personality issue, something
    unlikely to change, it may be helpful to just ignore it."

    The researchers point to several limitations of their study.

    They concede that having people report on their actions or feelings
    can bias the findings because people may only report what is socially

    They also mention that older adults may remember the past more
    favorably than younger people.

    In addition, the results may be influenced by the fact that
    constructive strategies may have survival value, and that people who
    use destructive strategies either do not stay together or do not live
    as long as those who find ways to get along.

    "Over all," Dr. Birditt concluded, "older people are experiencing less
    anger and less stress, and using less aggressive strategies when they
    have problems in their relationships.

    "It might be that relationships get better as we age."

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