In Brief

As adults grow older they decreasingly see the world through others' eyes, according to a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (Vol. 11, No. 1, pages 53-60). In particular, normal adults over the age of 75 may find it particularly difficult to factor in another person's values when making a decision from that person's point of view, says one of the study authors, Etienne Mullet, PhD, a psychology professor and director of studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris.

Mullet and his colleagues found this effect by presenting 27 written scenarios to 18- to 90-year-old French adults. The scenarios described a dilemma that another adult faced: whether to take a pain medication. The severity of the pain experienced by the patient, the amount of trust the patient placed in the doctor and the severity of side effects all varied by scenario.

Additionally, participants learned the importance the patient placed on one of these factors--for example, by reading that the patient "is known for placing no importance on side effects."

After digesting this information, the adults rated the likelihood the patient would take the medication.

Participants ages 75 to 90 years old tended to predict that the more severe the side effects, the less likely the patient would take the medication--regardless of the patient's reported values. In comparison, younger adults ages 18 to 25 years old generally predicted that patients who didn't care about side effects would be equally likely to take the medication, regardless of the severity of the side effects. Middle-aged adults' scores fell in between those of the younger and older groups.

The researchers found similar effects when the participants predicted the likelihood of medication-taking among those extremely concerned about side effects.

"Elderly people may be less likely to make these changes in judging because reordering the way information is processed requires a high level of executive functioning and, as a result, is not an easy task for them," says Mullet.

However, Mullet and his colleagues hope to develop methods for training older adults to make these perspective adjustments, which could lead to more harmonious relationships between them and their caregivers, he says.

"Past research has shown that in the case of daughters helping aged mothers, one of the most important predictors of each's satisfaction was their ability to perceive accurately the other's feelings about the helping relationship," Mullet notes.