Sunday, January 15, 2006


Wisdom has been attributed to older people in nearly all world societies from ancient times, but modern research on the psychology of aging has paid little attention to this quality of the late years. Instead, studies of the psychology of aging have frequently focused on decline, comparing the mental performance of old people with young people on such tasks as the speed of learning new information, speed of senses in registering stimuli, ability to see patterns, measuring IQ, and the like. Older people have also been compared with themselves on performance tests as they advanced in years (longitudinal studies).
The results of comparisons between young and old, many of which have shown lower levels of performance by older groups, are ambiguous because it is by no means clear that the differences demonstrate decline that is, the differences between young and old may simply reflect the higher levels of education of the younger generation. Further, repeated long-term studies with the same individuals show that normal changes are quite minimal. In spite of this, the tone of many reports about the psychology of aging imply major declines in competence, and the term decrement is commonly used to describe the psychology of later life.
A number of researchers, however, have assessed the psychology of aging quite differently. Instead of measuring decline, their aim has been to measure the unique and special characteristics of mind possessed by older people. Among these scholars are psychologist James Birren, former dean of the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California and now Brookdale Distinguished Scholar at UCLA; Gary Kenyon of St. Thomas University, Brunswick, Canada; Giselle Labouvie-Vief of Wayne State University in Detroit; and S. Holliday and M. Chandler, authors of Wisdom: Explorations in Adult Competence. Other scholars include Paul Baltes and F. Ditman-Kohli, who authored "Wisdom as a Prototypical Case of Intellectual Growth" in a volume entitled Beyond Formal Operations: Alternative Endpoints to Human Development; and K. Warner Schaie and Sherry L. Willis, who published an extensive survey of studies in the psychology of aging in their book Adult Development and Aging, now in its second edition.
These researchers might typically define wisdom as Kenyon did when he described it as "the ability to exercise good judgement about important but uncertain matters of life" -where "uncertain matters" refers to problems that may not have come up before, or to which there are competing or conflicting solutions, and so forth. These researchers describe the old as having "self-creating" powers because they seem to be more independent in their decisions, and less subject to external influences like the fads and trends that sweep over the young.
They propose also that the old are better able to live with contradictions in life and that they quickly see the essentials of situations because of their greater experience. Wisdom, they observe, includes the intent to do good, which in turn depends on holding favorable attitudes toward other people. In looking at the issue of decline in mental skills in age, these researchers are aware of the increase of organic brain disorders and of lower mental agility often occurring in the later years, but they also note that so called crystallized intelligence and certain other mental powers can remain stable and even increase. Knowledge of vocabulary words, for example, declines very little and may actually improve at any age.
Besides this, these researchers have demonstrated that lack of mental skill may be due to lack of practice, and that training improves performance of mental tasks. Relatedly, they observe that many people who perform mental tasks less rapidly and remember less well than in the past manage to compensate for these losses.
Current efforts by these psychologists to characterize the special features of mental competence in age, where speed seems to be replaced by depth and quality, are relatively recent. In the future people can anticipate great progress in defining the now ineffable, and little understood, dimensions of the older mind. Even now sources such as the General Social Survey suggest the validity of the new thinking.
For example, one of the questions interviewers for the General Social Survey ask, "Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful, or that they are mostly just looking out for themselves?" The elderly more than any other age group respond that people are helpful-from age 75 on, about 62 percent of the women and 52 percent of the men say people are helpful, but from age 18-24 only 43 percent of the women and 37 percent of the men think so. When asked, "Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance, or would they try to be fair?" about 70 percent of the women and 60 percent of the men over 75 said that people would be fair, compared to only about 48 percent of both men and women 18-24 years old who think so.
Answers to two questions like these are important because they come from a national poll that accurately reflects the opinion of the American public, but a great deal of research is still needed to determine what such responses mean and what the special mental features of older people may be. Understanding the quality of wisdom in the old is one of the important agendas for future research in the psychology of aging.
Kenyon, Gary. "Basic Assumptions in Theories of Human Aging," in Birren, J. and Bengtson, Y., Emergent Theories of Aging. New York: Springer Publishing Co., 1988.
Schaie, K. W., and Willis, S. L. Adult Development and Aging, 2nd ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1986.


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