Kellogg study: Listen to your elders

By Kathy Bergen
Posted Sep. 13, 2010 at 8:57 a.m.

Just about every family has one: An elderly aunt, uncle or grandparent who blurts out uncomfortably blunt advice. Well, stop cringing and start listening. At least that’s the finding of a study released today by a visiting researcher at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Some older adults’ declining ability to control their responses can bring about a higher quality of advice, according Evan Apfelbaum, the lead author, who is a visiting assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Study participants were shown a photograph of a visibly overweight teenager who complained of low energy, reduced social engagement, abnormal sleeping patterns and a lack of interest in school.

The older adult participants with lesser ability to control their responses explicitly mentioned weight as a potential source of the teen’s problems 80 percent of the time, while older adults with better response control and younger participants mentioned it much less frequently.

And doctors specializing in obesity treatment found the more direct responses to have a greater potential to prompt a lifestyle change.

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

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  1. sher Sep. 13, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Do they physically lack the ability to filter, or could it be that once you hit a certain age, you care a lot less about political correctness and who you offend?

  2. Jimbo Sep. 13, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    The best advice is often not taken. My wife thinks my honest advice to my teenage daughter is a bad thing. Daughter has no doubt about it, believes all 14 year old girls are smarter than the rest of the world!

  3. Wayne Williams Sep. 13, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    sher – you’ve nailed it. Jimbo, wait, it gets worse.

  4. Lwood Sep. 13, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    How much did they spend on this one….they couldn’t have figured it out without the study?

    I was told 30 years ago, by a Senior without failing facilities, that ‘he’s been where I’m going’…best advice I’ve ever had. Hopefully someone from the Kellogg School will read this, then they can add that line to their story.