Why Don’t the Young Learn from the Old?

One of the essential tragedies of the human condition is that each generation must relearn so much about how to be human.  Sure, life is too complicated for each generation to teach the next one about all the details we face, and many things change from generation to generation.  But you might think each generation could at least make clear to the next the big timeless insights and strategies of life.  You know, how to manage a career, when to leave town, how to be a good lover, friend, parent, spouse, employee, boss, etc. or what to watch out for when choosing such relations. 

We do spend a lot of time teaching our young skills like how to dress and hunt and drive and write.   And adults do sometimes pontificate on the big strategies of life.   But such sermons are mostly ignored, and honestly they aren’t often phrased very practically.   So the young seem to have to relearn how to manage a career, be a good lover and friend, etc.  Many learn the facts of life the hard way, and later wish they had understood such things sooner.   Why?

It seems to me that a big part of the story is that a naive innocence is attractive in many ways to people forming relationships.   Young people who act like they know a lot about the ways of the world are suspected, perhaps correctly, of being more self-centered and likely to defect when it is to their advantage.  And the sermons of the old often seem more devoted to reaffirming their ideals than to transferring practical advice.   

It seems that the faith that most young folks have in their own idealism and devotion to their principles and associates is attractive to others who are choosing mates, friends, and employees.  But I’m still not very clear on the details of this arrangement, and I would love to understand it better.

Added: In today’s Washington Post, Richard Cohen defends Monica Lewinsky,

She took a bad situation and made something good of it. That … makes her … once young — and now older and incomparably wiser. An approximation of this befalls us all, but before we got to become wise and prudent in all things we were probably irresponsible, outrageous and wild — in other words, young.  … Yet she did what so many women at that age would do. She seduced (or so she thought) an older man. She fantasized that he would leave his wife for her.

This seems to me a good example of how nature makes us "naive" and "irresponsible"  in our youth because it is to our advantage to be this way. 

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  • conchis

    “Young people who act like they know a lot about the ways of the world are suspected, perhaps correctly, of being more self-centered…”

    Unless the suspicion is correct, haven’t you just shifted the question back one level: why do we find innocence attractive, rather than being attracted to those who are more knowledgeable?

  • Bruce G Charlton

    Peer Pressure

    Judith Rich Harris’s book The Nurture Assumption may provide the materials for a possible hypothesis.

    To paraphrase: the major method by which parents transmit ‘knowledge’ to children is genetic (not learning) – this accounts for most of the similarity between children and their parents.

    But growing humans have to make their way in a world consisting of people outside of the family, therefore they have a mainly peer-orientation.

    In a sense, growing kids are interested in understanding and pleasing everybody _except_ their family, because the big thing that they need to _learn_ about after they are born is the rest of the human world (because they don’t have this knowledge in their genes).

    The implication is that kids will learn important stuff from peer groups who regard this stuff as important. Shaping peer groups may be the best way adults can influence children’s life strategies. One mechanism is formal education (schools etc), another is by providing a structured peer environment via organized pastimes, or by social/ religious organizations (eg sunday schools and church clubs, sports, classes in dance and the rest).

  • Bruce, yes, to the extent that the peer world differs from the home world, kids should learn the peer world. But the peer world isn’t so different from the parents peer world, so it still makes sense to ask my more insight isn’t passed on.

  • I had a conversation with my son a few days ago in which it transpired that something I had said had resonated with him and he had incorporated it into his thinking. I suspect that the young do learn from the old but the mistakes not made by virtue of some implicit lesson are less obvious than mistakes made because the relevant lesson never occured.

  • Adrian, or it could be that the story you relate is the exception that proves the rule. 🙂

  • Robin, the article you link to (http://hanson.gmu.edu/innocence.html) is interesting.

    It might have been Churchill or someone else who said something like, “Anyone who is not an idealist when he is young is a scoundrel, but anyone who is not a cynic when he is old is a fool”. There seems to be some truth to this. Also, we feel that we need to protect young children from exposure to obscenity, violence, and grit and horror in general, but less so with older children and adults.

    If insight gradually replaces innocence over the lifespan, what is the explanation of this? Is it simply inevitable that insight increases with experience, so that we must start out too naive and end up too jaded, spending only a brief time at the optimum point in passing? Or does the optimum tradeoff point change with age, and if so why?

  • Nick B, I was suggesting that nature programmed us to start out idealistic, knowing we would slowly learn the truth, because idealism helps the young to attract allies, and the old already have their allies.

  • It seems to me that the young do learn from the old, and society is structured to ensure that happens. Take a look at the way societies organize a young person’s life. The young are structured into opportunities for the old to instruct and guide the young. Virtually all human cultures have their young in school, sports, lessons, local superstitions or churches, and the family.


    David Rotor

  • michael vassar

    It seems to me that given regression to the mean, few young people have high IQ and can rely upon the high IQs of accessible old people concerned with their well-being. Given that except between people of high IQ, communication of insight and wisdom is very noisy and expensive, people should give low prios to the prospects for benefitting from aphorism.
    Basically, the people smart enough to benefit from verbal/symbolic instruction are unlikely to have smart enough mentors to provide them with important insights.

  • Michael, we are not talking rocket science here; most people should be smart enough to express and understand basic life strategy advice.

  • Robin: “I was suggesting that nature programmed us to start out idealistic, knowing we would slowly learn the truth, because idealism helps the young to attract allies, and the old already have their allies.”

    I want to tease apart two different (but compatible) possibilities:

    A. Even if optimum level of idealism were constant over the lifespan, we might still expect that evolution would have made us such that we start out idealistic and end up more cynical (if experience inevitably increases insight and insight inevitably increases cynicism).

    B. Optimal level of idealism changes over the lifespan, because the young need to attact allies while the old instead need to make the most of the allies they already have.

    You claim B. I don’t know whether you also believe A. If A were true, then it might be harder to determine empirically whether B also holds, because one could explain the greater idealism of the young, and their frequent failure to listen to their elders, by appeal to A.

    B might be well be true, but one could think of some possible factors that would favor more idealism in the old. For example, if the old are more involved in tribal-level politics, they might have more need to signal idealism about such politics.

    One might also think that the interests of the young would be more selfish, being concerned with their own health, reproduction, and social advancement, while the old might have more interest in the welfare of their children, grandchildren, clan, and tribe in general. If an old woman sacrifices herself for her relatives or the community, does this not count as idealism? Or if an old man devotes himself to some communal project or ideal so as to create a great legacy, is not that idealism too? Is there any data on whether these things are done more by the young or the old?

  • Nick, if our rate of learning was fixed, then I agree a simpler theory would be that the optimal level of idealism is roughly what we have at midlife, and evolution had to accept that this mean it would be too high early and too low late. But I suspect that evolution also had control over our learning rate; on topics where we don’t want to learn, we don’t learn much.

  • michael vassar

    I have almost never found it to be the case that I regretted not taking the advice of older people and authorities, while I have often found taking their advice to be an error, frequently one difficult to correct later.
    The non-rocket-science advice, such as “wear a seat belt” or “get a job”, young people seem to do fairly well. With respect to more difficult topics, such as how to succeed in social domains or what sort of job to get, advice tends to be cheap banalities, and fairly frequently to actively oppose youthful impulses which turn out to be correct.

    • Noumenon72

      One piece of advice to take: don’t use double negative or even triple (never regretted not). Had to get to the second part of the sentence to figure out the first.

  • MQ

    I don’t find this particularly mysterious, for the following reasons:

    1) Optimal tradeoffs between “irresponsible” pleasure-seeking and experimental behavior vs. sober and “responsible” behavior will change over the life course. This can be solely because of time — changes in the amount of time left to live (and thus recover from mistakes), the amount of time and effort already invested in the current path one is on. It can also be due to changes in experience and physical health over life. An old person is not necessarily an expert in how a risky but pleasurable experience *feels* to a young, vigorous person who is not already jaded to the pleasure involved.

    2) Big life course decisions have a lot at stake, and individual personality differences are quite significant in deciding which course is best. It is quite plausible that the extra benefits from the older person’s experience do not outweigh the individual differences, and people are simply right to be suspicious of blindly following the advice of others in these matters.

    3) Well-known cognitive biases lead people to overvalue their own decisions regardless of whether these really turned out to be the right ones. An older person’s advice may simply be their defensive post facto rationalizations for their own choices. Not always, but certainly sometimes.

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  • GoneWithTheWind

    This idea that Ms Lewinski was somehow taken advantage of is worse than silly it is stupidly naive. I have no doubt that Ms Lewinski gave oral sex to a hundred other men before Clinton and undoubtedly another hundred or so since and she did it for the same reasons that young people have always had for having sex (power, pleasure, ego, gratification, etc.) I doubt very much that she wanted Clinton to leave his wife and I suspect that her goal was to find some more ‘suckers’ to put notches in her diary.

  • bobic

    “you might think each generation could at least make clear to the next the big timeless insights and strategies of life.”

    that’s what culture is man.