One Surprising Trait that Develops as We Age

Hollywood has laden moviegoers with many classic portrayals of stereotypical Grumpy Old Men. But new research suggests that getting older doesn’t necessarily make people cynical and suspicious.

In fact, trust tends to increase as people age, a development that can be beneficial for well-being, according to two new large-scale studies by researchers at Northwestern University and the University at Buffalo.

Claudia Haase, study co-author andd assistant professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy comments:

“When we think of old age, we often think of decline and loss. But a growing body of research shows that some things actually get better as we age. Our new findings show that trust increases as people get older and, moreover, that people who trust more are also more likely to experience increases in happiness over time.”

Age and Trust

In the first study, the researchers examined the association between age and trust at multiple points in history, using a sample of 197,888 individuals from 83 countries. The results suggested a positive association between age and trust, one that has existed for at least the past 30 years with little change over time.

Said study coauthor Michael Poulin, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo:

“This suggests that it’s not simply about people being born at certain times.”

The second study followed 1,230 people in the U.S. over time and found that these individuals became more trusting as they aged.

Said Haase, who directs Northwestern’s Life-Span Development Lab:

“For Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers alike, levels of trust increase as people get older. People really seem to be ‘growing to trust’ as they travel through their adult years.”

Motivated to Give

One explanation for age-related increases in trust is that since older adults are increasingly motivated to give back to others, they believe them to be good and trustworthy, Poulin said.

“We know that older people are more likely to look at the bright side of things,” Haase added. “As we age, we may be more likely to see the best in other people and forgive the little letdowns that got us so wary when we were younger.”

Though trust can have negative consequences, especially among older adults at risk of falling for scams and fraud, the studies found no evidence that those negative consequences erode the benefits of trust.

“Both studies found a positive association between trust and well-being that was consistent across the life span, suggesting that trust is not a liability in old age,” Poulin said.

Haase adds:

“Our findings suggest that trust may be an important resource for successful development across the life span.”

M. J. Poulin, C. M. Haase.
Growing to Trust: Evidence That Trust Increases and Sustains Well-Being Across the Life Span.
Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2015; DOI: 10.1177/1948550615574301

Photo: Moyan Brenn/flickr