The New York Times touts a flawed study on ageism

I may have mentioned that just about the only news I have access to on this trip is the New York Times. I have Internet, but it’s so expensive that I write things offline (such as emails to family or posts to the blog) and then sign on just long enough to email or post. No leisurely online reading for me.

What the cruise ship does provide though is a six page leaflet that can be described as “the best of the day’s New York Times.” (Am I the only one who thinks that sounds like an oxymoron, with the emphasis on the “moron” part?).

In today’s “best of,” the New York Times reported on a Princeton sociology study that purported to show age discrimination. The deal was that three different actors representing three different age sets (young adult, middle aged, and old) were each given two identical scripts and videotaped performing those scripts. In half the scripts, the men compliantly said they’d share their wealth with relatives; in the other scripts, the three actors assertively said that they would not share their wealth.

The researchers than showed the various videos to 137 undergraduates (that is, there were six different videos of three different actors that were shown to 137 people under 22). At the end, the researchers proved to themselves that most of the people were neutral about the young and middle-aged men whether they were compliant or assertive, but didn’t like the old guy being assertive. The researchers’ conclusion, which they’ve bravely announced to the world is that ageism means nobody likes a mouthy old guy. Age discrimination is REAL.

My conclusion is that this research once again shows that there’s nothing scientific about either “social science” or university level psychology. Can you spot what’s wrong with the study? I can count a bunch of problems.

First, the study has too many variables. The study thinks that because the three actors spoke off of identical scripts, the only variable is age. In fact, the researchers completely discounted the fact that different people are more likable than others. The mere fact that they relied upon three actors, rather than putting aging makeup on one actor, means that the study doesn’t just have age variables. It also has personality variables. You only have to watch Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet and Kenneth Branaugh’s (spelling?) to realize that the same words make a very different impression depending on who speaks them.

Second, the sample is too small. As best I can tell without either a calculator or scratch paper (and based upon the NYT’s slightly muddled description of the study) an average of slightly more than 21 people saw each of the six videos. That means that the study reached its ageism conclusion based upon only twenty people’s opinions of the assertive old guy.

Finally, the study didn’t get the reactions of hundreds of people of varying ages. Instead, it was looking at UNDERGRADUATES. These are the same kids who, in the 1960 chanted “Never trust anybody over 30.” In other words, in a culture that a general matter doesn’t explicitly value age (unlike, say, traditional Asian cultures), this is a population that is very specifically predisposed to view old people somewhat negatively.

Ultimately, this study proves nothing about ageism in the workplace. All it proves is that, if you’re a 70 something guy in a roomful of 20-somethings, they’re probably not going to be your best buds. I could have told you that for free, without the need for an expensive Ivy League study.

I’m not claiming ageism doesn’t exist. For example, in a heavily computerized environment, it’s reasonable to believe that the old guy or gal who just can’t master the computer is going to be viewed negatively. I’m just saying that this stupid little study, boldly touted in a newspaper always looking for fresh victims in need of newly created government “rights,” is a testament to foolishness, credulity, and institutional bias, not to mention lousy science.

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  1. pst314 says

    “Finally, the study didn’t get the reactions of hundreds of people of varying ages. Instead, it was looking at UNDERGRADUATES.”
    This is a common problem in academia: Undergraduates are the most convenient test subjects because they are already on campus. Furthermore, they can be coerced into participating (“passing this psych class requires being a test subject”).

  2. lee says

    Not only is the sampling just undergraduates but:
    A) Princeton undergraduates (which will be quite different from say, oh, DeVry undergrads); and
    B) Very likely undergraduates who are enrolled in psych or soc or whatever department sponsored this. My experience (And I spent waaaaaaaaay too much time in school) is that the researchers usually just post a flyer in their own building. Or else just sample the class they are teaching.

  3. Michael Adams says

    When I was a member of the Knee Jerk Liberal Church, I used to marvel out loud that the University of Texas taught psychology and even sociology, but not astrology, which at least used some math.;) It really got their goats. 
    I know, that was not nice at all, rather like “emphasis on moron.”  Tut, tut, tut, Book. Really not nice.  I like that in a woman! (As my Beloved Spousal Unit well knows.)

  4. Oldflyer says

    Agree with the previous comments with regard to the social sciences; but, there is one more dynamic.  Old people are supposed to live frugally, and give to the younger generation.  If they defy the model, they do so at their own risk.
    But, they don’t really care.
    I also suspect, and yes I am profiling, that at Princeton there is a preponderance of Trust Babies in the social sciences.  So the respondents have a vested interest in the old folks dying decently, and soon, to finance those trusts–that is just the decent thing to do.


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