There’s something intuitively satisfying about the idea that we become less self-centered as we age. It fits with the image that “older” also means “wiser.”
And according to a new study from researchers in Singapore, there may be some truth to the theory that aging and altruism go together.
Specifically, the researchers looked at what they called social discounting based on social distance – the idea that we treat people we’re closer with better than those we’re more distantly acquainted with and definitely better than total strangers.
It turns out that older adults appear to engage in less social discounting. That is, while they’re equally generous to those they’re close with, they’re more generous to those who are more socially distant. Their generosity doesn’t decrease with distance as quickly.
According to the researchers, one interpretation of this finding is that “older adults are generous even when their generosity is unlikely to be reciprocated,” which fits with the idea that “the elderly are more oriented to ego-transcending goals.”
Previous research has suggested that this might be the case.
For example, a 2014 study found that as people become older, their values tend to shift to emphasize altruism over personal gain. The research found that older adults are more attentive to ecological concerns, are less interested in becoming rich, and tend to give less weight to financial gain when completing a problem solving task that involves balancing monetary gain and the public good.
The same study found that older adults are more likely to donate money rather than save it, echoing previous findings from a 1989 study.
Altogether, these results indicate that people tend to become more generous with age. Rather than being fixed, altruism may increase as people go through life and become less self-centered over the years.