Understanding Age Differences in Social Beliefs
Two interesting developmental questions arise with respect to social knowledge structures. First, does the content of our social knowledge and beliefs change as we grow older? And second, how do our knowledge structures and beliefs affect our social judgments, memory, problem solving, and more?
There are many types of belief systems, which differ in content across age groups and also influence behavior. Understanding age differences in social belief systems has three important aspects (Blanchard-Fields & Hertzog, 2000). First, we must examine the specific content of social beliefs (i. e., the particular beliefs and knowledge individuals hold about rules, norms, and patterns of social behavior). Second, we must consider the strength of these beliefs to know under what conditions they may influence behavior. And, third, we need to know the likelihood that these beliefs will be automatically activated when a person is confronted with a situation in which these beliefs are being violated or questioned. If these three aspects of the belief system are understood, it will be possible to explain when and why age differences occur in social judgments.
In other words, older adults may hold different beliefs than other age groups (e. g., different rules for appropriate social behavior during Anna’s situation of dating). Not only that, but how strongly individuals hold these beliefs may vary as a function of how particular generations were socialized. For example, although younger and older generations may both believe that people should not live together before marriage, the oldest generation may be more adamant and rigid about this belief. However, evidence of age differences in the content of social beliefs does not provide a sufficient basis for understanding age differences in how and when such beliefs will be activated and how they will influence behavior.
Social cognition researchers argue that there are individual differences in the strength of social representations of rules, beliefs, and attitudes that are linked to specific situations (Mischel & Shoda, 1995). Such representations can be both cognitive (how we conceptualize the situation) and emotional (how we react to the situation). When encountering a specific situation, the individual’s belief system predictably triggers an emotional reaction and related goals tied to the content of that situation. This in turn drives social judgments. Let’s take the rule “You should never live with a romantic partner before you are married.” If you were socialized from childhood on to believe in this rule, then you would negatively evaluate anyone violating it. For example, if you were told that Allen was putting pressure on Joan to live with him before they were married, and they subsequently broke up, you might have a negative emotional response and blame Allen for the breakup of the relationship because he was lobbying for cohabitation.
In a study exploring social beliefs, age differences were found in the types of social rules evoked in different types of situations (Blanchard-Fields, 1996,
1999) . For example, in a situation where a husband chooses to work long hours instead of spending more time with his wife and family, the social rule “Marriage is more important than a career” tended to increase with age. As can be seen in Figure 8.2, this was particularly evident from age 24 to age 65. Figure 8.2 also shows that the social rule “The marriage was already in trouble” has an inverted U-shaped relationship. In other words, adults around ages 35 to 55 years as compared to 24- to 35-year-olds and those over 65 years produced this social rule the most.
These findings may relate to how the oldest generation was socialized with respect to the “important social rules” of marriage. Your grandmother’s
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generation was probably socialized very differently from your generation as to what is appropriate behavior on the part of husbands and wives. Thus these findings may reflect such cohort differences. Alternatively, viewing marriage as more important than one’s career may relate to the particular life stage and life circumstances different age groups confront. During mid-career/mid-family stages, making a living and proving oneself in a career may take precedence (Schaie, 1977-1978). In contrast, during the retirement/empty nest phase, the importance of a marital relationship may reemerge. In contrast, the middle-aged group may not have relied on social rules to guide their thinking about the problem situation and focused more on the marital conflict itself. This could possibly reflect a by-product of the 1960s focus on communication of feelings. These are only a few examples of sociocultural experiential factors that may influence different social beliefs.
For a situation involving a youthful couple who eloped despite the objections of their parents, the social rules “Parents should have talked to, not provoked, the young couple” and “They were too young” also displayed an inverted U-shaped relationship with age. In other words, middle-aged individuals endorsed these rules, whereas younger and older age groups did not. In contrast, the social rule “You can’t stop true love” displayed a U-shaped relationship with age. In other words, younger and older age groups endorsed this rule whereas
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individuals in middle adulthood did not. It may be the case that in middle adulthood, between the ages 30 and 45, people are not focusing on issues of “Love conquers all.” This makes sense given that they are in the stage of life where the pragmatic aspects of building a career are important. They also emphasized the pragmatics of age (e. g., being too young) as an important factor in marriage decisions.
One possible explanation for the preceding findings was that cohort effects or generational differences (discussed in Chapter 1) influenced whether or not strong family social rules would be activated. For example, older women adopted the social rule “Marriage is more important than career” considerably more than did men of their same generation and more than did women and men of younger generations. That older women more strongly endorsed this social rule in comparison to the other age groups is a good example of how emotionally laden values are evoked from these situations. An interesting question is whether these age differences in social schematic beliefs influence social judgments. We will explore that next in our section on causal attributions.
1. How do social beliefs differ with age?
2. What are the possible explanations for age differences in social beliefs?