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Older People Have Less Insight Than Younger Ones: An Elephant in the Room of No Compulsory Retirement?

December 5, 2013


In one premier US university department,  half the tenured staff are over 75.  Very few of these continue to be at the forefront of their discipline as was the case when they were younger.

This makes it is very tough for younger staff in this university to get tenure, in part because of the policy which forbids compulsory retirement on age grounds.

We publish a paper this month  by my PhD student Siobhan Harty (Harty et al 2013) which discovered that older people (mean age 76) were only aware of about 57% of the mistakes they made on a test compared to younger people (mean age 23) who were aware of 82% of their mistakes.

That is an enormous, 25% difference in awareness and the important thing to note is that the test was designed so that the old and young performed equally well on it – so it was purely their awareness which distinguished the groups, not their performance on the test.

We also found that how unaware people were of mistakes in the lab predicted their lack of insight into everyday problems: we asked them to fill out absent-mindedness and memory problem questionnaires and then got their partners to rate their everyday cognitive problems.

This gave us an ‘insight’ score – the difference between how good you think your memory is and how good your partner thinks it is. The more unaware older people were about their errors in the lab, the bigger the gap between how they rated their memory and how their partners rated it – more poorly in the main.

I am strongly supportive of anti-age-discrimination measures – as much for self-interested as for social equality reasons – but this problem of self-awareness which we have identified could be the elephant in the room of ageing policy.

While some academics continue to be exceptional performers into their seventies and eighties, there are many who do not. But the problem is, many do not seem ready – or perhaps in the light of our research – even able to acknowledge this.

Of course there are plenty underperforming younger people in academia and elsewhere, but it is perhaps easier for an organization to influence them because of their tendency to be more self-aware about their mistakes.

So here is the challenge: how do we benefit from the productivity of the academic super-agers who continue to outshine their young colleagues into their eighties while at the same time gently persuading those to whom age has not been so kind, to take some steps to adjust their contribution to the organization?

This is a challenging task for the messenger, who is likely to be shot by former mega-stars with a diminished ability to self-monitor their own performance.

Of course as a fit and active early 60-year-old, none of this applies to me……. ahh… hold on a minute… let me read Siobhan’s paper again….

Harty S, O’Connell RG, Hester R and Robertson IH (2013) Older Adults Have Diminished Awareness of Errors in the Laboratory and Daily Life. Psychology and Aging 28,  December.



One Comment leave one →
  1. March, Jeffrey permalink
    December 6, 2013 11:15 am

    Dear Prof Robertson

    As a South African in mourning with the rest of the globe, your wisdom on Madiba’s leadership impact and how to deal with the overwhelm as a nation?

    Thanks positively




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