Currently, 1 in 5 voting age people in the U.S. is 65 or older. By 2030, senior citizens will account for an estimated 30 percent of the voting-age population.
The demographic shift will create a host of societal changes — and one could be a decline in voters holding their elected officials accountable, say two scholars who have studied the effects of age on political cognition.
Political science professors Richard R. Lau of Rutgers University and David P. Redlawsk of the University of Iowa say voters in their mid-to-late 60s start to lose their grip on evaluating political candidates. In simulated presidential campaigns, Lau and Redlawsk found that older voters both seek out and recall less information about candidates. As a result, seniors have overall lower rates of what Lau and Redlawsk call "correct voting" — a measure they developed to test how well voters select the candidates who share their positions and ideologies.
Given changing demographics, the scholars predict an overall decline of 4 percent in the correct voting in primary elections and 2 percent in general elections. It might sound small, but many elections are decided by much less than that.
"In order to be able to hold your representatives accountable, you have to be able to cast a vote that represents your preference as an interest," Redlawsk said. "If you fail to do that consistently, you are not in a position to hold your representatives accountable. As the population ages, it may be harder for people to determine the correct vote and hold their representatives accountable."
Lau and Redlawsk stumbled upon their finding rather by accident. They were trying to test a more general theory of how voters process political information. Contrary to standard models that predict vote choice based almost entirely on demographics and ideology, the scholars thought that how voters learn about candidates over the course of the campaign might have an important role in who they vote for.
So they simulated presidential elections on computers and tested to see how different people gathered and evaluated information. When they started to control for age, they realized that something was going on with the older people. Seniors were seeking out less information in the simulation, remembering less information and generally suffering from lower rates of correct voting.
The scholars first thought the effect could be due to the experiment taking place on computers, which older people might have a harder time using. Controlling for manual dexterity and prior computer usage reduced some of the effect but not all of it. Even taking into account these issues, older people were still seeking out and remembering less information about the fictional candidates.
"You could imagine that they're just thinking, ‘Well, I'm never going to remember this,'" Lau said. "Or maybe they've learned that the only thing you've really got to find out is what's their political experience, or the only thing they care about is their stand on the Middle East. Older and more experienced people are more likely to know exactly what they want."
To understand why this matters, it is helpful to understand a little more about the Lau and Redlawsk's theory of political information processing, which they cover more thoroughly in their recent book: How Voters Decide: Information Processing during Election Campaigns.
Learning is important, they note, but learning is rarely, if ever, neutral. Most people have existing ideological and partisan preferences, and they tend to filter and process information based on these preferences. They do this in two main ways.
The first is to conduct a "confirmatory search" — to seek out only details they already agree with, disregarding or ignoring the rest. For example, a strong Democrat might only read stories favoring the Democratic candidate, considering all other news untrustworthy and therefore a waste of time.
The second is for voters to rely on "heuristics," or cognitive shortcuts, that they've learned over the years. For example, a voter might look at endorsements. If a prominent conservative preacher endorses a candidate, the voter would realistically expect the candidate to have certain positions on a range of social issues.
Though both strategies have their obvious shortcomings, it turns out that, on balance, they actually help voters to make better decisions than if they tried to gather all the information and evaluate it in a neutral way. And they certainly save time and energy.
"Attempting to collect a lot of information is cognitively quite complex," Redlawsk said. "People who use an intuitive strategy do a better job in their vote choice than voters who attempt to learn everything, and we find a pretty consistent effect."
Overall, the results that Lau and Redlawsk report are somewhat depressing. In a two-candidate scenario, voters only choose the "correct" candidate 70 percent of the time; in a four-candidate scenario, voters only choose the "correct" candidate 31 percent of the time. (Testing with four candidates is harder because there is more information, and the most powerful heuristic, partisanship, is not as helpful).
The age effects start showing up in the mid-to-late 60s. As people age, two things are happening. One is that they have a harder time processing new information, so they are learning less quickly than they used to. But as people age, they also have more overall knowledge to draw on. This means they have more established intuitive shortcuts, which means they actually need less information to make a good decision because they better know what information to look for in the first place.
For the first 50 years of one's voting-age life, then, these two forces tend to balance each other out. But increasing reserves of experience can compensate for declining mental sharpness only until about the mid-to-late 60s. After that, the decline picks up steam. By the time voters turn 90, the scholars' models predict their correct level of voting will be roughly half of what it was when they were 20.
While Lau and Redlawsk focused on voters in their study, both can't help but wonder whether the effects translate to politicians. After all, 49 of the 100 sitting U.S. senators will be 65 or older when they finish their terms, 27 will be 70 or older, 11 will be 75 or older and the oldest, Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, is 90. (And one of the two current presidential candidates, John McCain, would also be 76 at the end of his presidential term were he to win the election.)
"We don't have our senators take IQ tests to see if they're starting to lose their abilities," Lau said. "But certainly with some of these senators who are being wheeled to the Capitol to push a button, you have to wonder about those sorts of things, and that to me is a big issue. But there's tremendous individual variation, so you just can't say."
Lau thinks that it might be a good idea for people in important positions of leadership to get their cognitive processing ability checked out on a yearly basis.
Both scholars are in their 50s (Lau is 56, Redlawsk is 50) and say they are confident that their cognitive processing capabilities are still in good shape. But Lau says the whole investigation has made him a bit introspective.
"You wonder about your own changes over time," he said. "I'm tremendously hopeful my experience will make up for whatever I'm losing in sharpness."
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