Age and openness to new ideas

I wonder whether there is a time in life by which our aesthetic and political preferences have been essentially locked in, after which we are no longer fully capable of integrating new ideas. It certainly seems plausible that this could be true. It could also help to explain the broader pattern of social change in society; as each generation rises to positions of influence, they bring with them the intuitive assumptions about politics and ethics that they absorbed when they were younger. Often, that means being willing to accept things that were outside the bounds of what was acceptable for the generation before, but which are less radical than what will be accepted by the generation after.

If true, this dynamic could also be a major reason for which people dying is an important form of social progress. To take one example, as there have been fewer and fewer surviving parents who would not tolerate having their child in an inter-racial relationship, the less taboo such relationships have become within society generally. I have also read about how scientific progress depends to some extent upon the death of highly respected individuals who have become overly wedded to new ideas in their old age, and who are now keeping the mainstream from accepting what the latest research has shown to be true about the universe.

Obviously, not everybody has their preferences and instincts ossified at exactly the same time, or to the same extent. That said, if there is evidence for such a phenomenon existing generally, it could have political and sociological importance. For one thing, it would highlight the importance of the education system and the overall collective of information available to youth, when it comes to determining what society is going to look like a few decades from now.

Do people think such a phenomenon is real? If so, what would the most important consequences be?

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

5 thoughts on “Age and openness to new ideas”

  1. I don’t see older people as being ossified or locked in – unable to integrate new ideas at all. I think the older we get the more change we have had to adapt to, the more new ideas we have already processed, the more we have already formed and reformed our values, opinions, aesthetics. Our old brains are slower, for sure. And attitudes are more stable, but that is perhaps more a result of years of learning, experience, thoughts and memories. Older brains have also formed an incredible network of connection and intertwining of neurons. Older brains, therefore, will probably seem less adaptable because they don’t jump on innovation immediately. They make judgments differently, based on their dense knowledge base. They will have a deeper understanding of consequences or of possible long-term ramifications. Younger brains will be more likely to make quicker judgments based on immediate knowledge. So, the older person may very well be hesitant to accept the latest research because their experience has told them that in 10 years there will be even newer research which may very well refute a great deal of the “latest” research.

    I think both younger and older brains therefore have value and input from both is necessary for a balance between building on what we as a society have already learned and pushing ahead despite that at times.

  2. “I wonder whether there is a time in life by which our aesthetic and political preferences have been essentially locked in, after which we are no longer fully capable of integrating new ideas. ”

    Having had the privilege to study under many emeritus professors, I can say that the extent to which as we age we are less capable to fully integrate new ideas is not a constant. Some people really do remain fully open to embracing new ways of thinking right up until their 70s or 80s. And on the other hand, some get very “locked in” 30 years before that. I don’t even want to say one is “better” than the other, but I certainly think that my personal preference is to remain as open as possible for as long as possible.

  3. For many people, I think attitudes and expectations harden in their twenties or so.

    That is one reason why it is good to travel while young.

  4. It seems less important to debate the reality of such a phenomena in general, than to ask whether one’s own preferences were ossifying, and what the implications of that would be.

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