science

Older adults are 'most likely to make the effort to help others', study shows


Generation generous: Older people are more likely than younger adults to put in effort to help strangers

  • Researchers found older people were more willing to put in the physical effort
  • When a task required more effort older adults were the more willing help others 
  • ‘Prosocial’ behaviour – intended to benefit others – changes as people get older 

Older adults are more willing to make a physical effort to help others than younger adults, a new study reveals.

UK researchers conducted experiments focused on people’s willingness to exert physical effort to benefit people on the other side of the age barrier.  

They found adults aged between 55 and 85 were more likely to to go the extra yard than adults between the ages of 18 and 36. 

The study claims to be the first to show how effortful ‘prosocial’ behaviour – intended to benefit others – changes as people get older.  

Older adults are more willing to make an effort to help others than younger adults, according to new research from the University of Birmingham

Older adults are more willing to make an effort to help others than younger adults, according to new research from the University of Birmingham

‘A lot of research has focused on the negative changes that happen as people get older,’ said study author Patricia Lockwood at the University of Birmingham. 

‘We show that there are positive benefits to getting older too, in particular older adults seem to be more willing to put in effort to help others.

‘These prosocial behaviours are really important for social cohesion.’            

For the study, the research team tested a group of 95 adults aged between 18 and 36, and a group of 92 adults aged 55 between and 85. 

Each participant made 150 choices about whether or not to grip a handheld dynamometer – a device for measuring grip strength – with six different levels of how hard they had to grip. 

Dynamometers are a small handheld device often with a dial used to measure people's grip strength (stock image)

Dynamometers are a small handheld device often with a dial used to measure people’s grip strength (stock image)

People really DO want to be kind to each other even if it costs them something 

People really do want to be kind to each other.

Researchers found that people overwhelmingly choose to be generous to others, even if it is at the cost of themselves and regardless of external motives.

The study, conducted online, asked participants to give money to other people, which the team assumed would lead to subjects anticipating something in return for their generosity.

However, the experiment revealed volunteers were largely willing to hand strangers cash without any motivation behind it – just the notion of helping the individual.

Read more: People want to be kind to each other even if it costs them, study says  

Before the experiment, the researchers measured each person’s maximum grip strength, to make sure the measure of physical effort was not affected by how strong people were.   

For each decision, participants were told whether they would be working to gain money for themselves, or for another person. 

First, the participants were asked to decide whether they would be willing to put in effort to gain money or not. 

If they accepted the offer they had to grip the handheld dynamometer hard enough to get the monetary reward.

The results showed that when the task was easy, young and older adults were equally willing to work for others.

But when the task required more physical effort, older adults were more willing than the younger adults to work to help others.

In contrast, younger adults were more selfish and were much more likely to put in higher levels of effort to benefit themselves. 

Despite heartwarming stories of young people helping their elders during the current pandemic, the study shows older people are more likely to help when there’s no personal benefit up for grabs. 

‘Past research had suggested that older adults were more prosocial than young adults because they donate more money to charity,’ said study author Dr Matthew Apps at the University of Birmingham.

‘But the amount of money or time people have available changes a lot as we get older, as such older adults might just appear more prosocial. 

‘We wanted to focus simply on people’s willingness to exert effort on behalf of someone else, as this shouldn’t depend on your wealth or the time you have available. 

‘Our results showed very clearly that participants in our older age group were more likely to work harder for others, even though they would gain no significant financial reward for themselves.’  

Understanding how prosocial behaviour changes as people get older is ‘critical’ to predict the impact of an ageing society, according to the team.

Projections from Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that by the late 2060s, there are likely to be an additional 8.6 million people aged 65 years and over – a population roughly the size of London. 

The full results have been published in the journal Psychological Science

Over 60s are regularly patronised by younger generations with name-calling such as ‘over the hill’ 

Over 60s are regularly patronised by younger generations with name calling such as ‘geriatric’ and ‘over the hill’ among the most frequent insults, a 2020 study said.

Older people were asked by charitable organisation University of the Third Age (U3A) to report the most demeaning terms they have had directed at them.

The research found older people are often insulted in person, with 63 per cent saying they had been called these names in public. 

Being called ‘geriatric’ topped the list with ‘past it’ and ‘fuddy duddy’ also making the top three.  

Over 1,000 people aged 60 and over responded to a request by U3A to submit the most demeaning terms they have had directed at them.

U3A also quizzed the wider public and discovered more than half of them (53 per cent) admit using words which older people see as patronising.

A third (31 per cent) confess to using ‘fogey’ about an older person, while over a quarter (27 per cent) have used ‘biddy’ and 18 per cent said they’d described them as ‘past it’. 

But it seemed many in younger generations simply don’t view the terms as insults.

They said they use them as ‘it’s just banter’ (43 per cent), ‘to be friendly’ (38 per cent) or simply because ‘it’s widely used language’ (35 per cent). 

U3A, which has over 450,000 members, is now asking the public to think twice about the language they use towards older people and help build a more inclusive society.

Sam Mauger, CEO of U3A, said: ‘Our members are vibrant, young at heart and have much to offer. They are not the stereotypes represented by these words.

‘This absolutely isn’t about placing blame; it’s about highlighting how our language can inadvertently serve to exclude people.

‘We want to challenge the preconceptions around ageing. Our members want to achieve in life, be active and keep experiencing new things.’ 

Read more:  Over 60s are patronised by younger generations with name calling





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