A Scientific Look at the ‘Grumpy Old Man’

The surly senior has been a staple figure of fun in pop-culture through the ages. But does the research stack up?

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Oct 4 2016, 11:20pm

Photo by Alexey Kuzma for Stocksy

From Shakespeare's King Lear, to the dedicated TV series, to basically every person on talk-back radio, the figure of the 'grumpy old man'—or indeed 'grumpy old person'—is alive and well. Meanwhile, hard data appears to indicate that as we age, we are indeed less social, more judgmental and more openly racist.

With populations ageing in many Western countries, this could all mean that grumpies are on the demographic march. But do humans really become more self-righteous, bigoted and anti-social as they age? Or are they just misunderstood by young folk?

Scientists have for decades claimed that older adults, both male and female, are typically less sociable than their younger counterparts. One theory is called 'disengagement', and posits that as we become more aware of the shortness of life, the relative value of our remaining days increases. In turn, we become more selective about how we spend those precious days—and with whom. Cue less time for new and superficial social forays.

Older people are actually better than younger people.

Which suggests the elderly are simply be more discerning, rather than wilfully misanthropic. This trend isn't limited to humans: Current research shows that the greys of the primate community are similarly picky when it comes to social relations. A German study of Macaques published in July found that monkeys become more selective as they age, decreasing the size of their squad.

A squad-less Macaque monkey. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

However, that doesn't mean the monkeys didn't care about their social lives anymore. They still tended to look longer at photographs of their friends than pictures of other random monkeys. And they continued to respond to screams from monkeys in their social networks, especially those of their best friend.

The difference was that they weren't just grooming (read: picking fleas) any old monkey, like when they were young and indiscriminate. Instead, grooming took place within their increasingly exclusive circle of pals.

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Monkeys are not, as far as we know, aware of their own mortality, so these findings actually cast doubt on the 'numbered-days' theory applied by some to humans. As Julia Fischer, the lead investigator on the study, explains: "Motivational changes in old age do not seem to be primarily dependent on the awareness of a limited remaining lifetime."

Rather, "It's probably a balance between reduced energy and a tendency to avoid negative interactions." Negative interactions are more costly to our well-being as we age—we don't necessarily 'bounce back' like we once did.

It's more difficult for older adults to engage in stereotype suppression.

There isn't a lot of research comparing men and women's differing level of grumpiness, but some experts have spoken about so-called 'Irritable Man Syndrome'. As men's testosterone levels drop, the theory goes, their irritability goes up. And according to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, up to a third of men over 75 have low testosterone levels.

"Testosterone is a hormone that grows muscles, reduces fat in the body, affects energy, and improves sexual desire," Dr. Ridwan Shabsigh, head of the International Society of Men's Health, told NBC in 2012. "However, it also has neural-psycho effects. And in some men we encounter in our practice, those affects can be mostly visible: low mood and irritability."

In contrast, some research suggests the levels of both good mood and empathy may actually be higher in the elderly. Psychologist Robert Levenson from Berkeley University has been wiring-up folk of different ages to monitor their emotions. "Older people are not as good as younger people at identifying the emotion shown in photos of emotional facial expressions," he tells Broadly.

"We have found, however, that when tracking changing emotions of other people in social situations—for example, arguing with a spouse—older people are actually better than younger people."

Levenson's research also found that older people are more likely to help others in distress. In addition, he notes findings that wellbeing generally goes up with age.

But what of the increased levels of prejudice and bigotry? Bill von Hippel, an expert in evolutionary psychology and social intelligence from the University of Queensland, says it's not due to grumpiness. Rather, these more unpleasant qualities seem to mostly be caused by changes in our brain function as we age. Namely, a decrease in cognitive control when we are confronted with society's many stereotypes.

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"The end result of this process is that it's more difficult for older adults to engage in stereotype suppression, and so they start to feel these thoughts and attitudes more than they did when they were younger," von Hippel says. "Thus, you could say that older adults are becoming prejudiced largely against their will."

So, while the aged human—male or female—might struggle, science seems to suggest that the fresh young minds among us should probably go easy on our (apparently) grumpy elders. And exercise our own abilities for stereotype-suppression while we still can.