Young Heads, Old Hearts

If a man is not a socialist in his youth, he has no heart. If he is
not a conservative by the time he is 30 he has no head.

Francois Guisot (1787-1874) said this first re “republican” while French Premier Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) changed it to “socialist”, and many others, including Winston Churchill have since said similar things. But new results seem to conflict:

We presented 60 younger and 60 older adults with health care choices that required them to hold in mind and consider multiple pieces of information. … The emotion-focus condition asked participants to focus on their emotional reactions to the options. … The information-focus condition … instructed to focus on the specific attributes, report the details about the options, and then make a choice. … Decision quality data indicate that younger adults performed better in the information-focus than in the control condition whereas older adults performed better in the emotion-focus and control conditions than in the information-focus condition. …

Fluid intelligence, that is, deliberative/effortful processing, peaks early in life followed by a steady decline thereafter. This component of intelligence comprises several subcomponents that all show consistent age-related decline including speed of information processing, temporary storage of information (i.e., short-term memory), and the storage and manipulation of information (i.e., working memory). Emotional processing, in contrast, appears to be well maintained at older ages.  More important, this selective preservation of emotional processing is found even in working memory. …

Previous research has linked this age-related emphasis on emotion-regulatory goals to preferential processing of emotionally salient and positively valenced material among older relative to younger adults. … In advertising contexts, older adults prefer and better remember ads with emotionally meaningful appeal whereas younger adults prefer and better remember ads with knowledge-related appeal.

So do young folks actually choose socialism with their heads, or are they mistakenly listening to their hearts instead of their heads?  Do old folks actually reject socialism with their hearts, not their heads?  Do we even know that old folks actually like socialism less than young folks?

Added 11:30a: Four (!) comments point to OKCupid results suggesting young and old adults are economically socialist, while kids and the middle-aged are not, for self-interest reasons.  People do seem to get more consistently socially restrictive with age, so maybe that is more tied to the young heads vs. old hearts trend.

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  • I’m reminded by this interesting blog post,
    where the author analyses the differences in economic and social beliefs across the lifespan using data from a dating site. I wonder how these would correlate with fluid intelligence?

  • William H. Stoddard

    Many old people love socialism, so long as you call it “Medicare” or “Social Security.” The entire agenda of the AARP focuses on the theory that the government should provide special benefits to the old regardless of the cost to the young or to the country. That’s why, at 60, I’m resolved never to have anything to do with them.

    But the difference between 20 and 30 is not really “old” versus “young” in quite this sense, is it? How we operationalize “old” makes a difference. I wasn’t aware that there was a major decline in fluid intelligence over those ten years.

  • RJB

    I think you are confusing tenderheartedness with information processing. I always assumed that the quote emphasized that young people who aren’t socialists don’t care about others’ welfare as much as they should, while old people who are still socialists haven’t figured out its moral hazard and bureaucratic problems as clearly as they should.

    The study you discuss seems to indicate that as people get older, they are more likely to rely on their limbic system for decision-making. It doesn’t affect their care about others or understanding of the flaws of socialism, just how they implement their empathy and knowledge into decisions.

  • Phil

    I always thought it was that old people had more time to hear and understand the arguments against socialism … and be taxed on their income to pay for it.

    Young people, on the other hand, have no wealth, pay little in taxes, and often have large tuition expenses.

    This age-related brain explanation seems unnecessarily complicated to me.

  • Stefano Bertolo

    you might be interested in some actual data and the attendant analysis at

  • OK Cupid has a really interesting analysis of this based on large amounts of data collected from people’s profiles.

  • Bill

    Most of the young people I interact with–teaching an MBA class or a lawschool class–are and always were quite conservative. So this head/heart thing is sooo old fashioned.

    My observation is that political orientation is based on parental orientation–the conservative kids I see are from first generation college educated families. Kids from families of generational wealth are a little more liberal.

    Also, this liberal/conservative heardhearted/softhearted stueck is a bit weary and cliched. Ever heard of a compassionate conservative or a person who believes that market incentives lead to higher overall wealth? Or a liberal Malthusian?

    No, what is more interesting is how people are NOT changing, primarliy because they can seek out the media that supports and reinforces their views. They will be stuck in a rut regardless of growing old.

    • “My observation is that political orientation is based on parental orientation–the conservative kids I see are from first generation college educated families. Kids from families of generational wealth are a little more liberal.”
      I agree that political orientation is heritable. Butold money is more conservative than new money.

      • Bill

        There could be some selection bias. The kids I see are more oriented toward the practical side–finance graduate students taking a marketing course–and the law side is a bit more practical also. So, maybe it is what I see on the take up side of business and law school, both somewhat practical disciplines.

        But, the wealthy kids whose parents I know seem to take management of non-profits courses, art museum management, etc. Where old money kids get conservative is when their parents send them to the same conservative undergraduate school that they had–U Chicago, Notre Dame, Caltech, Yale, private religious schools. Parents from Harvard are a different matter.

  • Not counting extremely old age, how much of this supposed deterioration is simply Flynn effect, breaking the whole story? Are 50yos dumber than 20yos because of deterioration or because they started dumbed? Flynn effect is about 10 IQ points (@15 stddev) per 30 years.

    Do we even know that old folks actually like socialism less than young folks?

    In general, cross-culturally, it’s simply not true. Here’s just one example from States – and even here relationship doesn’t look like that.

    • To explain this profile of relative abilities in fluid and emotional intelligence, you’d have to assume that fluid intelligence stays constant with age but increases with birth year, but that emotional intelligence increases with year for all birth years.

  • I just added to the post.

  • Vladimir M.

    Robin Hanson:

    Do we even know that old folks actually like socialism less than young folks?

    At this point, it’s good to revise what we actually mean by “socialism.” The libertarian definition — i.e. basically any large transfer or tax-funded program except defense and law enforcement — is principled and coherent, but not really adequate here. The reason is that such programs that have existed for a long time tend to be perceived as property rights of their beneficiaries, even if they’re essentially “socialist.”

    A loose analogy would be, for example, the privileges of nobles and clerics before the French Revolution. Lots of those would fall under “socialism” by the strict libertarian definition, but the label is clearly not adequate. It was the reactionaries who fought to uphold these privileges, and radicals who sought to abolish them, and such abolition was viewed as stripping a certain class of people of what they (with a wide public agreement) considered their inalienable rights. It’s pretty much the same with Medicare or Social Security today. A typical beneficiary of these programs would perceive a proposal to abolish them as wild property-violating radicalism.

    So do young folks actually choose socialism with their heads, or are they mistakenly listening to their hearts instead of their heads? Do old folks actually reject socialism with their hearts, not their heads?

    I’d say old folks are simply more conservative and nostalgic for the past. In a highly libertarian society where socialists are innovators and radicals — such as the Western world a century ago, when Clemenceau made the above quoted statement — this will mean anti-socialism. However, in a society such as ours, where large socialist (by libertarian standards) programs have been entrenched for generations, their conservative stance will also involve upholding such programs. Or, as a more extreme example, the Communist vote in Russia in the last two decades has been largely from the old.

    • Microbiologist

      > Not counting extremely old age, how much of this supposed deterioration is simply Flynn effect, breaking the whole story? Are 50yos dumber than 20yos because of deterioration or because they started dumbed?

      I don’t know if that view is uncontroversially accepted. But yes, it exists.

      A paper’s abstract:
      “Overall, [we find that] the Flynn effect accounted for at least 85% of the disparity between 20- and 70-year-olds.”

      “Some studies emphasizing the distribution of scores have found the Flynn effect to be primarily a phenomenon of the lower end of the distribution. Teasdale and Owen (1987), for example, found the effect primarily reduced the number of low-end scores, resulting in an increased number of moderately high scores, with no increase in very high scores.[4] However, Raven (2000) found that, as Flynn suggested, data reported by many previous researchers that had previously been interpreted as showing a decrease of many abilities with increasing age must be re-interpreted as showing that there has been a dramatic increase of these abilities with date of birth. On many tests this occurs at all levels of ability.[5] “

    • Bill

      Had a hoot when I read the libertarian exception to statism and socialism–“defense and law enforcement”.

      We can have misallocated defense resources, excessive defense (you can never have too much defense–why, you won’t know if you needed it because there never was a ….(fill in the blank here with nuclear war, terrorist attack, invasion by the body snatchers, etc.). Defense expenditures can be bridges to nowhere too. And, a libertarian saying you can never have enough social control through law enforcement (by the way, which majority’s law are you going to enforce).

      Libertarian exceptionalism under this definition is just a conservative — and could even be a fascist.

      • Jayson Virissimo

        That is exactly why many libertarians belief that anarchism is libertarianism taken to its logical conclusion.

      • Your critique is devoid of logic. You are reading far too into “defense.” Just think about defense as there’s an optimal way to defend your self or family, and likewise there’s an optimal way to defend your country. Some libertarians think the state must cover these protection services, others disagree.

    • i think the point being made in that hackneyed old quote is that in youth people want to flaunt their ideaology to prove group loyalty or signal their commitment to something greater than themselves (politics, religion, family tribe) and those who are a bit older have usually established families and careers and are more interested in holding and protecting what they already have and are less interested in rocking the boat, as what they have is built upon the status quo, and the last thing you want to do is go disrupting it if you’re looking for stability.

      to call it socialist V conservative is a misnomer, as a socialist in a well-established socialist society (USSR) is actually a conservative as they’re interested in maintaining the status quo. a progressive or revolutionary in such a society would be more likely to identify as a nationalist, anarchist, fascist or religious fundamentalist.

      in short, the young have nothing to lose, because they don’t have anything yet. fighting for a cause, whether fascist, communist, religious or whatever signals strength, commitment and loyalty.

      even among the rich old-money set can be found young revolutionaries. certain groups of nationalist revolutionaries in the British Conservative Party have been booted out over the years for being a little too extreme for the leadership to accept. these often go on to influence the extreme right of british politics (BNP, NF and so on)

  • Vladimir M.

    This paper has some interesting insights into the age patterns of Russian Communist voters, and definitely buries the hypothesis that
    old folks might be cross-culturally anti-socialist:

    Many predicted that the strength of the Communist Party in Russia would wane as the elderly pensioners who disproportionately supported the party died off. Contrary to this prediction, the findings of our analysis indicate that voters who reached retirement age during the past decade [1992-2002] were even more supportive of the communists than the cohort of pensioners who preceded them.

    (The full paper can be found here).

  • Microbiologist

    Sorry – I threaded unintentionally

  • I always thought that the quote is meant to be prescriptive rather than descriptive.

    Its about age appropriate behavior. Society collectively likes to see young people ‘getting involved’, embracing politics and good causes and attending demonstrations. Its a kind of rite of passage that is almost expected.

    I have always felt that a lot of the kids who attended Anti-Bush demonstrations were doing so because they vaguely felt that going on demonstrations was part of the college experience. They are following cultural conventions.

    Ostentatious displays of political engagement are a status marker for young people. Signaling your caring and compassion to the world is easier with left-wing political causes than with right wing ones,

    Weirdly I think that older people also want and expect young people to be more left wing than themselves.

    There is a cultural script that says young people SHOULD be idealistic go on lots of demonstrations and embrace good causes.

    Mature adults get far less status mileage out of these kinds of activities than the young do.

    Both old and young people prefer demonstrators and political activists to be young.

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  • Ryan Vann

    Well, I’m 25 now, and never thought much of socialist or conservative views; that must make me an alien or something. I think the group think/identification/signaling theory explains much of the perceived socialist nature of the young, or so were my observations during college. It was interesting to get friends and acquaintances isolated from the group, to find their opinion differed widely from their group persona. This was at U of Oregon though; I now live in Tallahassee, where my SO teaches as a GTF (FSU), and student attitudes are starkly different (read way more conservative) both privately and publicly.

  • Ben Curnow

    Wow, I am amazed at how self-interested most people making comments appear to be. I was a socialist at 18. Not because I wanted to be cool or rebel against my parents. I genuinely thought that socialism was the solution to the problems I perceived in society. Now at 40 and having much greater experience of the world, whilst being in favour of some wealth redistribution, I realise that without an incentive to work, people won’t work. So socialism is bound to fail in practice, however fabulous it sounds in principle. This has nothing to do with the fact that I am now substantially wealthier than I was at 18. This is not self-interest talking. Just experience.