An interesting set of studies has been published by UC Berkley that looks at how our emotional strategies for dealing with upsetting issues change as we age.
As psychologist, Robert Levenson explains:
“Increasingly, it appears that the meaning of late life centres on social relationships and caring for and being cared for by others… Evolution seems to have tuned our nervous systems in ways that are optimal for these kinds of interpersonal and compassionate activities as we age.”
One study looked at how 144 healthy adults in their twenties, forties and sixties reacted to neutral, sad and disgusting film clips.
Younger and middle-aged participants were best at using ‘detached appraisal’ to tune out and divert their attention from unpleasant and upsetting scenes. This approach draws heavily on the prefrontal brain’s executive function, a mechanism responsible for memory, planning and impulse control that tends to diminish as we age.
Older people were best at reinterpreting negative scenes in positive ways using ‘positive reappraisal’ – a coping mechanism that draws heavily on life experience and lessons learned.
A second larger study used similar techniques to test how our sensitivity to sadness changes as we age and found that the older cohort showed more sadness in reaction to emotionally charged scenes, compared to younger people. The results, as explained by psychologist Benjamin Seider showed that:
“In late life, individuals often adopt different perspectives and goals that focus more on close interpersonal relationships… By doing so, they become increasingly sensitised to sadness because the shared experience of sadness leads to greater intimacy in interpersonal relationships.”
Which, in short, explains why younger people are less likely to respond to your appeals – they are emotionally programmed to ignore them.
You can read more on the studies here.