The findings of a new study from the University of Birmingham suggest that older adults are more willing to make an effort to help others as compared to younger adults. The findings of the research were published in the journal 'Psychological Science'.
The study, led by researchers in the University's School of Psychology, is the first to show how effortful 'prosocial' behavior, intended to benefit others, changes as people get older. In particular, it focused on people's willingness to exert physical effort, rather than to give money or time, since attitudes to both these are known to change with age.
“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,” it said.
For the study, published in Psychological Science, the research team tested a group of 95 adults aged between 18 and 36, and a group of 92 adults aged 55-85. Each participant made 150 choices about whether or not to grip a handheld dynamometer – a device for measuring grip strength or force – with six different levels of how hard they had to grip. Before the experiment, the researchers measured each person's maximum grip strength, so they could make sure that the effort people had to put in was the same for everyone, and not affected by how strong people were.
For each decision, participants were told whether they would be working to gain money for themselves or another person. First, they were asked to decide whether they would be willing to put in the effort to gain money or not. If they accepted the offer they had to grip hard enough to get the money.
The results showed that when the task was easy, young and older adults were equally willing to work for others, but, when the task was more effortful older adults were more willing to work to help others. In contrast, younger adults were more selfish and were much more likely to put in higher levels of effort to benefit themselves.