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The Backwards Induction of Aging

Summary:
If you’re lucky, you’ll be old one day.  Your mental faculties will deteriorate, especially your memory and your ability to adapt to new conditions.  Your personality, however, is likely to stay about the same.  Which raises a serious question: What will life be like for someone who has (a) poor memory, (b) low flexibility, and (c) your personality? Before sorrow overwhelms you, remember: You’ll probably have younger people around to help you.  Which raises a more specific question: How will younger people treat someone who has (a) poor memory, (b) low flexibility, and (c) your personality? It’s tempting to quip, “Poorly!”  But there’s a wide range of possible outcomes.  A know-it-all with severe memory loss is far more aggravating than an equally forgetful person

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If you’re lucky, you’ll be old one day.  Your mental faculties will deteriorate, especially your memory and your ability to adapt to new conditions.  Your personality, however, is likely to stay about the same.  Which raises a serious question: What will life be like for someone who has (a) poor memory, (b) low flexibility, and (c) your personality?

Before sorrow overwhelms you, remember: You’ll probably have younger people around to help you.  Which raises a more specific question: How will younger people treat someone who has (a) poor memory, (b) low flexibility, and (c) your personality?

It’s tempting to quip, “Poorly!”  But there’s a wide range of possible outcomes.  A know-it-all with severe memory loss is far more aggravating than an equally forgetful person who admits his own amnesia.  A self-aware inflexible person is more pleasant company than a dismissively inflexible person.  A person with failing health who naturally looks on the bright side is more pleasant than a person who was miserable even in the best of times.  And like it or not, the more pleasant your company, the more company you’ll have – and the better care you’ll get.

So what?  Well, while your personality is unlikely to change when you’re 80, most readers are not 80 yet.  You can, perhaps with great effort, reform yourself.  Unless you’ve previously factored the contents of this post into your character, why not marginally change course?  Be more modest about your mental faculties – especially your memory.  You can even formally test your memory to see how you compare to the rest of the population – and periodically re-test yourself to see how your memory is holding up.  Try not to be so stubborn – or at least be mindful of how your stubbornness burdens those around you.  And yes, strive to be positive and pleasant to others.  Train yourself to look on the bright side of life, forget about the news, and steer conversation to subjects that the people around you enjoy.  If this seems hard, compare it to the challenge of being old, bitter, and isolated.

“I’m too old to change.”  The elderly routinely use this as an excuse for the aggravation they cause.  Yet if you look down the game tree and do backwards induction, you’ll find not an excuse, but a blueprint for a better senescence.  One day, you’ll be too old to change?  Very well; then repair your personality now before it’s too late!

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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