If you suffered from piles, would you want your friends asking aboutyour condition in public? Most people wouldn't, yet new researchsuggests that the older you become the more likely you are to makesomeone blush with embarrassment in that way.
But old people may not intend to be rude: in fact, age-relatedchanges in brain function may explain their lack of tact, according toa new Australian study just published in the journal Psychology andAging.
Tests carried out by researchers at the University of New SouthWales, in Sydney, found that people aged 65 to 93 years were morelikely to ask each other such personal questions in a public settingthan younger people aged 18 to 25 (see example below).
Yet the study also found that older people were just as likelyas younger ones to agree that making public inquiries about privateissues was socially inappropriate and embarrassing: so why do olderpeople blurt out such discomforting questions?
The ability to inhibit thoughts and actions is critical forsocially appropriate discourse but that ability appears to weaken dueto changes in brain function related to the normal ageing process,according to one of the authors of the report, Associate Professor Billvon Hippel, of the UNSW School of Psychology.
"It's not just that older people were more likely than youngerpeople to ask personal questions," says Professor von Hippel. "In fact,young people in our study were more likely to ask each other questionsof a personal nature, but they usually did so in private.
"It seems that young adults have a greater ability to holdtheir tongue than older adults in contexts where it is inappropriate todiscuss personal issues." Behaving badly like this also seems to havenegative consequences for peer relationships, particularly for olderpeople.
"Young people weren't too bothered when their friends wereoccasionally inappropriate, but older adults felt much less close tothose acquaintances who asked about their private lives in public,"says Professor von Hippel.
Are you tactful?
In the research project, small groups of friends were askedquestions like this about each other: Imagine that you have someprivate medical condition (for example, haemorrhoids). Your friendknows about your condition. You are alone together with your friend,maybe at home having a coffee together.
Would your friend inquire/comment about your condition?
How about if you were at a gathering with other people when yourfriend arrives. Would your friend inquire/comment about your conditionin front of the others? Similar questions were asked about recentweight gain, personal family problems, etc.
ABOUT BILL VON HIPPEL
Bill von Hippel, PhD, is associate professor in the school ofpsychology at the University of New South Wales (Sydney, Australia).His research interests include prejudice and stereotyping,social-cognitive ageing, and evolutionary psychology.
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