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“Age-related declines in the capacity to control behavior can serve as an ice-breaker, fostering greater engagement and comfort in typically stressful social exchanges,” says Evan Apfelbaum, visiting assistant professor of management and organizations.

Evan Apfelbaum

Age-old advice

Visiting Assistant Professor Evan Apfelbaum finds that in thorny situations, elderly adults often provide the best advice

By Aaron Mays

9/13/2010 - If you’re looking for good advice, ask an elderly person, according to a new study from the Kellogg School.

The study, “Age-related Decline in Executive Function Predicts Better Advice-Giving in Uncomfortable Social Contexts,” found a positive correlation between a person’s age and the quality of their advice.

“Everyone at one point or another has witnessed a grandparent or an older adult bluntly comment on someone’s appearance while others refrain from saying anything,” said Evan Apfelbaum, visiting assistant professor of management and organizations and the study’s lead author. “We explored the psychological basis for this sort of anecdotal experience and have identified some remarkable positive implications of these naturally-occurring declines in older adults’ ability to suppress behavior.”

As elderly adults age, they experience declines in “executive function” — the cognitive ability to control and regulate one’s behavior. As a result, elderly persons are more likely to speak their mind in uncomfortable social situations, and are more apt to provide good advice to those seeking guidance in these situations, researchers said.

As part of the study, researchers gathered 32 elderly adults, averaging 73 years old, and 19 college-age adults for a “community-based interview initiative to counsel struggling teenagers.” Half of the elderly adults demonstrated relatively high levels of executive function (comparable to the healthy young adults) and the other half of the elderly adults demonstrated relatively low levels of executive function.

All participants received a photograph of a visibly overweight female teenager along with a fictional letter written by the teenager. In the letter, the teenager complained of having little energy, decreased social engagement, abnormal sleeping patterns and a lack of interest in school — all symptoms frequently associated with childhood obesity. After reviewing the photo and letter, participants were asked to offer advice to the teen.

The researchers discovered that only 32 percent of the college-age adults and 44 percent of the older adults with higher levels of executive function explicitly mentioned weight as a potential source of the teen’s problems. However, 80 percent of the older adults with lower levels of executive function explicitly mentioned weight.

“Although the older adults possessing higher executive function and college-age adults recognized the teenager’s serious health threat, they tended not to share their concerns,” said Apfelbaum.

The researchers then asked physicians specializing in obesity treatment to blindly evaluate the advice generated by all participants. Doctors rated the advice of older adults with lower executive function as having significantly greater potential to prompt a lifestyle change, compared to the other participants.

“Aging is often associated with a host of negative consequences, including issues with memory, attention, and decision-making,” Apfelbaum said. “However, age-related declines in the capacity to control behavior can serve as an ice-breaker, fostering greater engagement and comfort in typically stressful social exchanges. It appears that these older adults are able to give better advice in these thorny situations because others are more concerned with being offensive than being helpful.”

The study, “Age-related Decline in Executive Function Predicts Better Advice-Giving in Uncomfortable Social Contexts,” will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Apfelbaum co-authored the research with Anne C. Krendl and Nalini Ambady of Tufts University.

To request the full study or to arrange an interview with Apfelbaum, contact Aaron Mays.