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Older Adults Are Less COVID-Cautious, and It’s Not Just Politics

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The New York Times recently conducted a poll of Americans’ attitudes and beliefs about the COVID-19 pandemic. A key take-home message: Many of us are thinking and acting irrationally, either over- or under-estimating the health risks posed by COVID. No surprise there.

But what is more surprising is that despite reams of publicly available health data, one group that consistently underestimates risk is Americans age 65 or older. When asked, “How worried are you about getting sick from COVID-19 within the next year?” old and young people expressed similar levels of concern about their personal risk—despite the uncontested fact that older Americans are at a significantly greater risk of getting seriously ill and dying from COVID.

How to explain this apparent break with objective evidence? The most common suggestion is that older adults are more likely to identify as Republicans, and thus the general COVID skepticism characterizing that political party explains the trend. Yet politics can only be part of the story. Psychological theories of aging explain why.

As we age, our perceptions of the future change.

The older we are, the more aware we are of our mortality and that there are boundaries on our time. When time horizons shrink and time is perceived as constrained in this way, people prioritize emotionally rewarding and meaningful experiences, such as maintaining close connections with friends and family, over long-term goals and personal growth (e.g., adventurous travel, learning a new skill).

In other words, older people are acutely aware that time will eventually run out and that they need to make time for what really matters in life. It’s YOLO on over-drive.

These observations form the backbone of what is called Social-Emotional Selectivity Theory, which argues that our perception of future time shapes how we select and pursue socially and emotionally meaningful goals. Experimental evidence shows that it’s this time perception, rather than aging per se, that’s important. For example, when older people are asked to choose among three social partners, they reliably select the one to whom they are emotionally closest. But when you ask them to imagine that they just received news of a medical miracle that will extend their life far longer than expected and are then asked to choose a social partner, they now resemble younger people who show no specific preferences.

Older adults prefer the positive and emotional.

Research also shows that older adults disproportionately seek, attend to, and remember positive more than negative information when making decisions. One study showed that when presented with advertisements emphasizing emotional rewards (“capture those special moments”) or expanded horizons (“capture the unexplored world”), older adults not only preferred the slogans emphasizing emotional rewards but also remembered the associated products better. This positivity effect may have downstream benefits: Older people have, on average, more positive emotional experiences in their daily lives, manage their emotions better, and face the possibility of serious disease with more equanimity.

In the advertisement study, when older participants were asked to imagine an expanded future, they stopped showing a preference for the emotion-related slogans, showing that this positivity effect is malleable. That’s important because a focus on positivity and present gains rather than future costs is not unilaterally beneficial. Downplaying risk and minimizing negative information can lead to poorer choices across many domains, from health decisions to financial investments. And that brings us back to the pandemic.

Many of us with elderly parents can attest to, shall we say, a cavalier attitude about the dangers of COVID. You might remember how in 2020, before vaccines became widely available, many of us were frustrated when our parents refused to socially distance, insisted on eating dinner with their friends, and continued their weekly bridge games. They also wanted to visit their grandchildren immediately and repeatedly, despite strong warnings against it. Meanwhile, we younger ones were doom-scrolling the heartbreaking news of skyrocketing rates of hospitalization and death among the elderly.

A study conducted in 2020 at the height of pandemic lockdowns confirmed this anecdotal evidence of the almost cheerful indifference of some older people to our dire warnings: In a survey of 945 adults between the ages of 18 and 76 in the U.S., older people reported significantly greater emotional well-being, even when they perceived there was a risk of contagion and complications from the virus.

Calling older people’s beliefs about the pandemic irrational or the result of political polarization misses the fact that they, better than most, perceive that their time is limited and want to make the most of it. Perhaps some older adults are indeed falling prey to dangerous underestimation of COVID risk. But public health recommendations that insist on isolation from loved ones, threatening the social and emotional goals central to the lives of so many older people, are equally dangerous—and likely to backfire.

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