Whether it’s a grandpa in the 1993 movie “Grumpy Old Men” calling someone “you dumb friggin’ Swede” or your elderly neighbor referring to a black nurse as “a colored girl,” the stereotype of un-P.C. old folks is borne out by research: studies show that seniors tend to be more racist than younger Americans. The standard explanation has long been that the elderly formed their social and political views when prejudice was more tolerated than it is today—or, that once someone reaches her 80s, she is beyond social niceties. (As one Grumpy Old Lady we know put it, “I’m 91. What the hell do I care?”) There is some truth to both explanations, but now a neurobiological one has emerged. The frontal lobes, responsible for inhibiting unwanted speech and behavior, shrink with age. The resulting loss of “inhibitory control,” a new study shows, plays a central role in the politically incorrect speech that becomes more common with age.
To test whether loss of inhibition might explain racist and ethnic slurs, psychologist William von Hippel of Australia’s University of Queensland measured how well people of different ages could halt unwanted speech. Volunteers were given paragraphs containing distracting words within the text and were asked to read them aloud—without speaking the distracting words. (Imagine reading this story aloud but skipping words beginning with “s.”) Differences in inhibitory control matched differences in the frequency of racist speech. That is, older adults displayed prejudice toward African-Americans— even though many knew it was wrong—only “to the degree that they also showed greater difficulty inhibiting their vocalization of the distracting text,” von Hippel reports in the October issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. Seniors with good inhibitory control rarely used offensive language.
Lack of inhibition may also explain why older adults sometimes drone on about topics irrelevant to a conversation and ask embarrassing questions. (“Do you ever hear from that boy who dumped you, dear?”) Their frontal lobes can’t censor their impulses—impulses that younger adults have, too, but squelch.