Believing Your Age

Conan O’Brien’s departing message:

All I ask of you, especially young people … is one thing. Please don’t be cynical,” O’Brien said. “I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.

Why ask this especially of young folks?  After all, among the generations, young folks are the least likely to be cynical, i.e., to generally attribute low untrustworthy motives to others.  And why should the truth of a belief about the world depend on your age anyway?  If low motives are common, that fact is equally true for all age people.

Apparently, we like people to “act their age,” including having age-appropriate beliefs.  Young folks are supposed to be more idealistic, while old folks are more cynical.  Why?

This seems to me well explained by the standard econ concept of lock-in, where the costs of switching rise with the tenure of a relation.  Before you form a relation, you want to project high switching costs, while once you are locked in, you want to project low switching costs.

When you are idealistic about how others will treat you in your relationships, you become more attractive as a relation partner.  This helps you attract better partners.  Later in life, when you are attached to particular others via relations, you are better off being suspicious and cynical, as this gives you a negotiation edge when threatening to leave your partners, and discourages them from exploiting you.

HT Jennifer Ouellett.

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