I have long been aware that older persons, like children, tend to be less inhibited in expressing opinions, even though their opinions, and choice of language, might offend. But, do people actually become more prejudiced as they age? University of Queensland psychologist William von Hippel (born 1963) thinks that this is not unusual.
My research suggests that, although many people remain unprejudiced throughout their lives, older adults have a tendency to be more prejudiced than their younger counterparts.
Psychologists used to believe that greater prejudice among older adults was due to the fact that older people grew up in less egalitarian times. In contrast to this view, we have gathered evidence that normal changes to the brain in late adulthood can lead to greater prejudice among older adults.
The frontal lobes are the last part of the brain to develop as we progress through childhood and adolescence, and the first part of the brain to atrophy as we age. Atrophy of the frontal lobes does not diminish intelligence, but it degrades brain areas responsible for inhibiting irrelevant or inappropriate thoughts. Research suggests that this is why older adults have greater difficulty finding the word they’re looking for – and why there is a greater likelihood of them voicing ideas they would have previously suppressed.
…. When I was teaching at Williams College in Massachusetts, an African-American student told me how her white grandfather had recently started referring to her as his “little nigger grandchild”. She was shocked and hurt by this, and couldn’t understand why her grandfather would say such a thing when she knew he loved her and was still mentally alert. The consequences of his disinhibited words were substantial ….. ….
[P]eople who find themselves becoming less tolerant or more prejudiced can be quite unsettled by the shift in their own attitudes – a change that can affect friendships and their position in society.
William von Hippel , “Do people become more prejudiced as they grow older?, BBC News Magazine, 17 July 2015.
Sadly, Professor von Hippel has no remedy for those of us who become less tolerant and more prejudiced as we grow older. It is something to keep in mind, however.