"Older people appear better able than younger people to pick their battles," said Kira Birditt, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world's largest academic survey and research organization. "When they're upset with others, older people are more likely to do nothing or to wait and see if things improve. Younger people, on the other hand, are more likely to argue and yell."
One of Birditt's studies, funded by the National Institutes on Aging, appears in the current (May 2005) issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. As part of a larger study of interpersonal problems in adulthood, Birditt and colleague Karen Fingerman of Purdue University interviewed 187 men and women ages 13 to 99.
Participants described the last upsetting situation they had encountered with their closest, and with their most problematic social partners. Then the interviewers asked them, "Think back to a recent time when you were irritated, hurt, or annoyed with (that person). Can you tell me a little about what happened, why you were upset and what you did about this situation?"
Younger people were more likely to shout, argue or walk away in response to problems while older people were more likely to do nothing. Older people reported less frequent contact with their social partners and less distress when confronted with interpersonal problems. Even after the researchers controlled for frequency of contact and distress levels, the age differences in reactions to conflict remained.
In another article on the same topic, forthcoming in Psychology and Aging, Birditt, Fingerman and David Almeida of Pennsylvania State University explored age differences in exposure and reactivity to interpersonal tensions using the National Study of Daily Experiences. Participants ages 25 to 74 described the arguments they experienced as well as the arguments they avoided each evening for eight days.
The researchers analyzed the responses of 666 participants who described interpersonal problems (365 participants, or 35 percent of the nationally representative sample said they had not had any arguments during the eight-day period the interviews covered). Again, Birditt and colleagues found that older adults reported fewer interpersonal tensions, were less likely than younger adults to argue and more likely to do nothing in response to tensions.
"These findings suggest that people may become better able to regulate their responses to problems as they age," said Birditt, who is the Elizabeth Douvan Research Fellow at ISR. "They experience fewer interpersonal problems, feel less negative emotion, and use less destructive behaviors when upset with their social partners."
The reason may be that older people mellow as they age and value their relationships more, instead of becoming grumpier and more like the stereotypical curmudgeons. Or it may be that today's older adults have better manners than younger people, Birditt speculates, and are therefore less likely to yell and scream when someone upsets them.
"We did find that older people reported more problems with spouses and fewer irritations with children than did younger people," she said. "This may be because older adults' children have often moved out and they have more contact with their spouses due to retirement."
Birditt also found that women reported greater stress in response to problems than men. But surprisingly, conflict strategies did not vary by gender. "It's possible that gender differences in conflict strategies vary depending on the emotional closeness of the relationship," she said. "But we did not find overall gender differences in conflict strategies across types of social partners."
In future research, Birditt hopes to explore how different types of reactions to interpersonal stress influence psychological well being. "People assume that it's best to actively deal with interpersonal tensions by discussing problems and trying to figure out ways to solve them.
"But we found that most people avoid problems by not saying anything, ignoring the situation and just letting it pass. Maybe avoidance isn't such a bad way to deal with tensions after all."
Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world's largest computerized social science data archive. Visit the ISR Web site at www.isr.umich.edu for more information.