Do We Become More Virtuous As We Age?

Do we become more virtuous as we age? Certainly there are saints among us who display more of the fruit of the Spirit with every passing year. Then there is someone like Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church, who by all accounts remained as hateful as ever until his recent death at age 84. How about the average older person, though?

Fred Phelps. We don't all get better with age.  (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Fred Phelps. We don’t all get better with age. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

I suspect that the answer to this question depends on what virtue we are talking about. For example, having to deal with countless frustrations during the course of life inculcates patience in most older adults. Dependability might also improve, if for no other reason than repeatedly suffering the consequences of being unreliable probably teaches something to even the slowest learners. On the other hand, I suspect that flexibility and broadmindedness are more common among the young.

A recent  news article discusses a virtue (actually, the absence of a vice) that is more common in older adults. It seems that as we get older we become less spiteful.

According to Dictionary.com, spite is “a malicious, usually petty, desire to harm, annoy, frustrate, or humiliate another person; bitter ill will; malice.” The authors of the research study on which the article is based include another element in their definition, namely that spiteful persons will attempt to harm others even at the risk of experiencing negative consequences themselves. This element of willingness to endure unpleasant consequences in order to injure others is quite evident in the “spitefulness scale” that the researchers developed. Here are a couple items:

  • “It might be worth risking my reputation in order to spread gossip about someone I did not like.”
  • “If my neighbor complained about the appearance of my front yard, I would be tempted to make it look worse just to annoy him or her.”

Responses to the scale were obtained from two university samples, and from online participants who were paid to take part. The researchers found that women were less spiteful than men, and older participants were less spiteful than younger participants.

David Marcus, a psychology professor at Washington State University and a co-author of the study, suggested the following regarding the relative lack of spite in the older participants: “You get older and you learn from experience and you just may not have the energy for it.”

We don’t have the energy? So we senior citizens are just too tired to be spiteful? Thanks a lot, Dr. Marcus! If I was a spiteful person, I would write something nasty about you at this point! But I don’t have that sort of malice, so I’ll be charitable and focus on your other explanation for why seniors aren’t spiteful. Yes, we have learned from experience. Specifically, we’ve learned that the satisfactions that result from harming others are shallow and come at a tremendous price. Kindness is better than cruelty, and love is better than hate, both for others and for ourselves. If you doubt this, just ask an elder.

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About bobritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to my parents' home and provide them with assistance. I maintain part-time therapy practices in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. I currently worship at Square Inch Community Church in Grand Rapids. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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3 Responses to Do We Become More Virtuous As We Age?

  1. evelinamarie says:

    I’ve known some spiteful, bitter old people and some pretty spiteful young ones in my life.
    My comment on Dr. Marcus’ findings? One study does not a fact make.

    • bobritzema says:

      Thanks for your comment. You’re right–one study isn’t definitive. Even if the finding is validated by future work, there are always exceptions.

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