Why the Old Look Down on the Young


Ever since the Greeks, people have been complaining that the next generation is a disappointment. Nowadays, it’s Boomers fighting with those aggravating, avocado-toast crunching, emoji-texting millennials. The feeling is seductive—but isn’t it really an illusion? After all, the old folks who are complaining were once on the receiving end of the same complaints themselves. In the 1960s, the Boomers’ parents denounced them as irresponsible hippies. Have people really been steadily deteriorating since ancient times?


In a new paper in the Journal Science Advances, John Protzko and Jonathan Schooler of the University of California at Santa Barbara call this feeling the “kids these days” effect. And their research suggests that it has as much to do with how we think about ourselves as it does with those darned kids.

在一篇刚发表在JSA的论文中,UCSB的John Protzko 和 Jonathan 称这种情绪是现在的孩子啊……」。他们的研究显示这与我们自己如何看待自己有关,那些小屁孩也是一样。

The researchers studied a sample of 1,824 people, chosen to be representative of the U.S. population. They asked the participants about how the next generation compared with earlier ones—in particular, whether they were respectful, intelligent and well-read. Overall, people gave the young lower ratings, in keeping with the “kids these days” effect.


But the interesting thing was that people responded differently depending on what they were like themselves. People who cared most about respect were most likely to say that the next generation was disrespectful. Those who scored highest on an IQ test were most likely to say that the next generation was less intelligent. And those who did best on an author-recognition test were most likely to say that the next generation didn’t like reading. It seems that older people weren’t responding to objective facts about the young; instead, they were making subjective comparisons in which they themselves came off best.


Most significantly, Dr. Protzko and Dr. Schooler showed that when people’s view of themselves changed, so did their view of the next generation. In one part of the experiment, researchers told participants that they had either scored very well or very badly on the author-recognition test and then asked them to make judgments about the reading abilities of the young. When people believed that they were worse readers themselves, they also were less likely to think badly of the next generation.

最明显的是,Dr. Protzko 和 Dr. Schooler 说:当人们对自己的认识变化的时候,他们也对年轻人的看法发生了改变。在一项测试中,研究人员告诉参与者在「作家辨识」环节里,你要么只能给年轻人高分,要么只能给低分,没有中间档。然后去询问这些打分的人觉得现在的年轻人的阅读能力怎么样?当这些参与者觉得自己也没怎么读书的时候,他们觉得现在的年轻人不爱读书的概率就小很多。

Dr. Protzko and Dr. Schooler think the “kids these days” illusion works like this. Older people who excel in a particular trait look at younger people and see that, on average, they are less well-read, respectful or intelligent than they are themselves. Then they compare those young people to their own memories of what they were like at the same age.

Dr. Protzko 和 Dr. Schooler 觉得「现在的孩子啊……」幻觉差不多是这样的:那些在某个方面做的优秀的老年人大体上会觉得跟他们相比,现在的年轻人读书少、不尊敬人、没那么聪明。他们拿自己记忆中的当年的样子去和现在的年轻人对比。

But those memories are unreliable. Studies by the Stanford psychologist Lee Ross have shown that we tend to adjust our view of our past selves to match the present. For example, we tend to think that our past political views are much closer to the ones we hold now than they actually were.

但这些记忆其实都不靠谱。斯坦福心理学家Lee Ross的研究表明:我们总趋向于调整我们过去的自我来匹配现在的自我。例如,我们趋向于相信我们过去的政治观点和我们现在的很接近。

In addition to overestimating how much the past resembled the present, people who excel in a particular trait forget that they aren’t typical of their own generation. They may generalize the statement “I loved to read when I was young” to conclude “and everybody else did too.” When we complain about the next generation, we’re actually comparing them to an idealized version of our own past, obscured by the flattering fog of memory.


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