Objectifying the Old

I just came across news of a humdinger of a research report from Georgia Tech
about how older people process information differently than younger
people depending upon whether they are in a ‘positive’ or a ‘negative’
mood. I have seen some pretty nonsensical conclusions reached by social
scientists and statisticians, but this is about a flaky as they come.

Granted I haven’t read the research itself, only a description of it which concludes:

"So it shows that the young and old are
motivated by different goals and, therefore, perceive and process
information differently because of the changes in goals across the
lifespan,” said Blanchard-Fields.

Now my experience as one of the ‘old’ is that, of course, I have
different goals than when I was young. I accomplished most of those.
But my goals don’t’ determine my judgment and they certainly don’t
limit my capacity to function depending on my moods. The part of the
report that really annoyed me was that people should “impart
information differently to older adults”. How about speaking slower,
talking louder, and (if you are talking to really old people or other
minorities) using small words? I say bullshit.

"It may be the case that older adults
in a negative mood state are more motivated to downgrade their negative
emotions and, thus, not allocate enough processing time to focus on the
details of the situation. So this needs to be taken into consideration
when imparting information to older adults,” said Fredda
Blanchard-Fields, professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Psychology. 

I have spoken about the subtle aspects of ageism and how it can
reinforce the overall culture of aging—specifically the idea that age
is about inevitable decline and loss. This kind of supposedly
‘scientific’ research is the same kind of deterministic thinking that
objectifies human beings, builds theories on shaky assessments, and
then designs questions to give answers to prove their theories.

For anyone who reads the press release about the report, consider this
for an alternative interpretation. Older people have learned the lesson
Shakespeare so aptly penned in Hamlet (Act II, scene 2): “There is
nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Further, they have enough worldly experience to give people the benefit
of the doubt and not get lost in self-referential analyses of
motivation and causality (which, at the end of the day, are simply
assessments and never true or false). This is the kind of thinking that
gives the field of management a bad name.

As one older person, I am very clear that I value and want people to
tell me what they are observing — I want their unedited straight talk.
When people speak to me based on their model of who I am, they are
placing themselves in a ‘senior’ position to me, robbing me of dignity,
and ultimately denying me the opportunity to interact with their point
of view as an equal with something to say.

Serene Ambition
is about understanding that as human beings we have a
choice about who we are and our experience of living. If we want the
future to be at least as full and fulfilling as the past and to expand
our capacity for love, health, happiness, self-expression and being
valued, then we need to beware of any attempts to sell us a bill of
goods that we are different because of our age. There are differences
to be sure, but their meaning is purely individual and social
interpretation. They mean nothing in terms of what is possible in the

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