Older adults are more likely to help others than younger adults

A volunteer packs a box of food to be distributed to people in need at the Capital Area Food Bank on April 9, 2020, in Washington, D.C. New research suggests older adults are more willing than their younger peers to exert effort on someone else's behalf. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI

April 17 (UPI) —¬†Need a helping hand? Science says look for an older adult.

According to a new study published Friday¬†in the journal Psychological Science, effortful prosocial behavior — a willingness to exert physical effort on behalf of someone else — is more common among older adults.

“A lot of research has focused on the negative changes that happen as people get older,” lead author Patricia Lockwood, head of the Social Decision Neuroscience Lab at the University of Birmingham in Britain, said in a news release. “We show that there are positive benefits to getting older too, in particular older adults seem to be more willing to put in effort to help others.”

“These ‘prosocial behaviors’ are really important for social cohesion. Understanding how prosocial behavior changes as people get older is critical as we predict the impact of an aging society,” Lockwood said.

For the study, researchers recruited two groups of adults, one group of 95 younger adults, ages 18 to 36, and a group of 92 older adults, ages 55 to 85.

To begin, researchers tested each volunteer’s maximum grip strength using a handheld dynamometer. The tests provided a baseline for researchers to compare exertion levels during the experiments.

Next, researchers had volunteers make 150 choices about whether to grip the dynamometer or not. In different scenarios, volunteers were told they could grip the dynamometer to earn money for either themselves or someone else.

The volunteers could decline any given scenario. Each scenario required volunteers to reach a specific threshold of exertion — relative to their baseline — to earn the monetary reward.

The results showed older and younger adults were equally willing to help others earn money if the task was easy and the exertion threshold low. But as the tasks grew harder, requiring greater physical effort, older adults were more likely to help others. Younger adults were willing to exert greater effort, but mostly to earn money for themselves.

When surveyed about their experiences, the prosocial behavior of older adults was associated with positive feelings about other people.

Previous studies have shown older adults are more generous with their time and money, but most older adults have significantly more time and money than younger adults. Researchers wanted to focus on a more evenly distributed resource — effort.

“We wanted to focus simply on people’s willingness to exert effort on behalf of someone else, as this shouldn’t depend on your wealth or the time you have available,” said senior author Matthew Apps, an associate professor at the University of Birmingham. “Our results showed very clearly that participants in our older age group were more likely to work harder for others, even though they would gain no significant financial reward for themselves.”

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