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For Elderly, Conservative Beliefs Buffer Self-Esteem

New research finds the elderly have a psychological incentive to embrace cultural conservatism: Such beliefs prop up their self-esteem.
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Do people tend to grow more conservative as they grow older? That bit of folk wisdom is debated among academics — some studies say yes, others no. Political analysts consider it a given, with most suggesting a large turnout of older voters will give Republican candidates a significant advantage in the upcoming mid-term election.

Newly published research suggests senior citizens have a strong unconscious incentive to embrace culturally conservative values: Turning to the right apparently bolsters their self-esteem.

Writing in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, psychologists Alain Van Hiel and Lieven Brebels of Ghent University in Belgium describe a study of 331 older adults. The 123 men and 208 women ranged in age from 60 to 97.

Participants took surveys to measure their levels of self-esteem, narcissism and cultural conservatism. The latter was assessed by probing their beliefs about such issues as abortion, euthanasia and a women’s proper place in society.

The researchers found growing older was associated with lower levels of self-esteem among those on the liberal side of the scale. But conservatives were spared that decline, leading them to conclude that “conservatism buffers the negative effect of age on self-esteem.”

Van Hiel and Brebels note this confirms the results of their 2009 study, which found that for the elderly, an authoritarian attitude appears to buffer the harsh effect of negative life events on mental distress.

“Right-wing beliefs are good for old people,” they write. “Conservatism predicts healthy self-esteem above and beyond narcissism among the oldest.”

Why would this be? Van Hiel and Brebels argue that old age is a time to take stock of your life and attempt to find meaning. For most, this means looking back at your experiences and accomplishments in the context of your social environment. A social-conservative belief system, which values your culture or society above others, would elevate your own personal status, thus propping up your self-esteem.

“Ego-integrated individuals have a strong sense of being part of a given culture and tradition that is rooted in the past and should be preserved in the future,” they write. “Hence, adherence to culture and traditions might be considered a means of granting significance to oneself as a person.”

The down side of this, of course, is that “people favoring their own group tend to derogate out-groups and to reject everyone who threatens their world view,” the researchers write. This results in higher levels of prejudice among the elderly — a phenomenon widely noted in the U.S., but usually ascribed to a reduced ability to repress implicit biases, including those acquired during their formative years in the pre-Civil Rights era.

If Van Hiel and Brebels are right, that’s only a part of the story. Their research suggests that, for the elderly, tightly embracing one’s culture produces significant psychological benefits. The question becomes how one can do that while remaining respectful of other belief systems.