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Advancing age.

Old age underestimated.

Interview: Iris Mickein

Psychologist Jana Nikitin has spent 15 years studying the ways in which people establish and maintain relationships. She recently concluded a number of studies on social approach and avoidance motivation across the life span, with an emphasis on old age.

Prof. Dr. Jana Nikitin
Jana Nikitin is Assistant Professor of Personality and Developmental Psychology at the University of Basel’s Faculty of Psychology. She considers social approach and avoidance motives to play a key role in human relations.

UNI NOVA: Professor Nikitin, biologically speaking, aging is a degenerative process. What’s your perspective on that?

JANA NIKITIN: There’s no denying that old age has its limitations. And yet, people today are leading ever longer, healthier lives. Psychologists believe that development occurs at all stages of life, only in different functional areas. Each stage is associated with specific gains as well as losses. In old age, emotional intelligence is one area that stands to benefit. Crystallized intelligence, which is linked to factual knowledge, may continue to increase, too. By contrast, fluid intelligence, which manifests itself in problem solving processes, is more likely to decline. However, recent research has shown that even this kind of intelligence can be improved in old age with the help of specific techniques.

UNI NOVA: Still, older people are often portrayed as being lonely.

NIKITIN: That’s a negative stereotype. It’s true that older adults maintain fewer social contacts than younger or middle-aged people. But the motivation behind this tendency is anything but negative: Older people report a relatively high degree of satisfaction with their social relationships, whether with their partner, family members or friends. This sets them apart from younger people, who tend to be less happy with their social contacts. As people age, their resources change and, as a result, so do the goals they pursue in their relationships. Older people set greater store by their social ties. Their primary motivation is to avoid negative social interactions such as conflicts. And as a rule, they’re better at doing so than younger people, because they care more about the wellbeing of those around them.

UNI NOVA: Does this mean that older people are more empathetic?

NIKITIN: Not necessarily. Empathy involves perspective- taking – a cognitive process older adults have more difficulty with. As psychologists, we prefer the term “responsiveness,” which means the ability to adapt to the needs of somebody you’re dealing with even if you don’t understand how they feel. This helps cement relationships: Even in difficult situations, older people feel close to the person they’re interacting with, because they care more about that person’s well-being.

UNI NOVA: How do you measure the interest they take in the other person’s well-being?

NIKITIN: I use specific statements made by study participants. In addition, responsiveness can be gaged indirectly through speech analysis: For instance, older people will use words like “we” and “our” more often, regardless of whether they’re aiming for social approach or avoidance in a given situation, in other words, whether they’re trying to achieve something positive or avoid something negative. This kind of behavior shows an orientation towards their interlocutor which young people in difficult situations would abandon in favor of a more self-centered perspective.

UNI NOVA: How would you define successful aging?

NIKITIN: Successful aging is a creative process that needs to be actively managed. It means redefining your goals so that they’re appropriate to the resources you have available – which also means abandoning goals that are impossible to achieve.

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