Older people are perceived as more moral than younger people across seven countries

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A new study published in Ethics & Behavior found that older people are perceived as more moral than younger people across WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) and non-WEIRD samples.

“In many cultures, it is said “older – wiser,” but no one has really studied it empirically. Past literature also showed that this may be true. So, we decided to test the hypothesis of whether older people are perceived as more moral than younger people. This is especially relevant as we live in the age of the cult of youth,” said study author Mariola Paruzel-Czachura, PhD (@Mariola87880133), a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania and an associate professor at the University of Silesia in Katowice.

“Is it always bad to be old? We were curious to test it on the example of morality, as morality is the basic trait we look for in others.”

Moral judgments tend to be formed quickly and intuitively. However, factors such as age or culture may influence these assessments. In this work, Paruzel-Czachura and colleagues examined the effect of perceived age on moral judgments across seven cultures, including five WEIRD societies (i.e., Australians, Britons, Canadians, New Zealanders, and Poles) and two non-WEIRD indigenous societies (i.e., Burusho of Pakistan and Dani of Papua).

Across the seven populations, a total of 661 individuals participated in this research. Data collection was gathered in person by a native-speaking interviewer for Britons and the Burusho, and through an interviewer alongside a local interpreter for the Dani people. Data for the remaining populations was gathered via an online survey.

Participants were presented with three schematic faces that were customized to the given society, including the faces of a younger, middle-aged, and older person (approximately 20, 40 and 60 years old respectively). They saw sets of male and female faces, and were tasked with selecting one of three faces from each set as their response. The researchers opted to use sketches as opposed to photographs in order to minimize details – aside from age – that may influence participants’ evaluations.

Moral judgments were obtained via answers to “Who is most likely to follow the rules/norms regarding what is right or wrong in your society?” and “Who knows best what is right or wrong in your society?” These two questions targeted descriptive and normative morality. The authors write, “We define descriptive morality as codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group, while normative morality as a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational people.” Participants provided separate responses for male and female faces. The presentation of male and female faces as well as the question order was counterbalanced.

The researchers found that older adults were perceived as more moral than younger adults. This effect was more pronounced when comparing 20-year-olds to 40- and 60-year-olds. Further, this effect appeared across all seven societies and to the same degree across industrialized and non-industrialized societies. Interestingly, the Burusho and Britons perceived middle-aged individuals as the most moral.

I asked Paruzel-Czachura what we should take away from this study. She responded, “That our age matters for our moral image (i.e., how other people see us). This has many practical implications because morality is important for every area of life, from private to business or political relationships. In this case, being older works in our favor.”

Additional findings emerged as well. First, the older participants were, the more likely they were to select older faces as the most moral. Second, women (more so than men) selected older faces as the most moral. Third, older faces were more often selected as knowing what is moral (as opposed to behaving morally). Fourth, cultural differences emerged, such that, “older individuals were less frequently chosen as the most moral in Great Britain than in Canada, New Zealand, and Burusho people; middle-aged individuals were more frequently chosen as the most moral in Dani than in Canada and New Zealand.” Lastly, the likelihood of selecting the youngest face as the most moral was consistent across all seven populations.

What questions still need to be addressed? The researcher responded, “We have shown the general trend, but now it is necessary to examine how exactly it works (why) and what the consequences are, e.g., whether older people are judged more severely in moral judgments or receive longer sentences for the same crimes than younger people (as we require from older people more, since they are ‘morally wiser,’ so they should know how to behave), or if we are less able to forgive older people their wrongdoing.”

Paruzel-Czachura reflected, “Such projects take longer, as collecting such a diverse sample requires more sources and good team management, but this is the direction in which psychology should go – beyond the WEIRD samples.”

The study, “Older people are perceived as more moral than younger people: data from seven culturally diverse countries”, was authored by Piotr Sorokowski, Marta Kowal, Sadiq Hussain, Rashid Ali Haideri, Michał Misiak, Kiriakos Chatzipentidis, Mehmet Kibris Mahmut, W.P. Malecki, Jakub Dąbrowski, Tomasz Frackowiak, Anna Bartkowiak, Agnieszka Sorokowska and Mariola Paruzel-Czachura.

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