The Psychology of Aging

On why the process of aging and growing old, although driven by negative force at a later stage is inherently positive and can change our perspectives on life…

Aging is one of the most normal and regular processes that affect humans both positively and negatively and along with physiological and physical changes, aging brings out many psychological changes in individuals. Although aging happens throughout life, the primary importance of aging is felt during the transition from middle to old age and could be considered as the most important stage of aging.

So what are these processes that explain aging in humans and what are the psychological theories that explain the differences in people’s thought patterns due to age related changes?

According to WHO, the world’s greying population has been growing steadily with the decrease of fertility rates and longer life expectancy and considering that aging is a part of everyone’s life it is important to understand the psychological changes that can occur during different stages of life when age becomes more than just a number. Age could be considered as largely psychological in that some pessimistic people may tend to feel older even before they are 40 whereas others consider themselves old only when they reach 60 and beyond. Age can be felt by individuals as a measure of health and physical manifestations such as greying of hair, wrinkles of skin or weakness of muscles can indicate changing age. Since most of us identify with our body, aging of the body naturally brings about aging of the mind and with declining physical strength, there may be a decline of psychological strength and this works like a cycle on age related processes. Poor psychological health in turn affects the physical well being of an individual. Although life expectancy of individuals have gone up considerably in the last few years suggesting the improvements in global health, individuals still tend to remain apprehensive about the changes in life that age will ultimately bring.

In psychology, Erik Erikson delineated certain stages of psychosocial development as applicable to adulthood or middle age as well as old age. As the individual continues to grow throughout life, psychosocially, the focus may be on generativity versus stagnation during middle age when individuals tend to contribute to their careers and family. People who choose generativity would be successful in using their skills at work or family or both otherwise with stagnation they can feel unproductive and unrelated with the world. The last stage of psychosocial development that occurs in old age brings out the dimension of integrity versus despair in which individuals look back at their achievements and accomplishments and may develop a sense of pride and integrity or may develop feelings of despair. According to Erikson, old age is a period of self reflection and will generally bring in a feeling of hopelessness or satisfaction.

I would consider middle age as primarily based on materialistic or worldly needs and old age primarily based on spiritual and existential needs. Whereas middle age is about ‘living’ and living properly and individuals focus on increasing assets, properties and savings for the future and also focus on achievements, old age is about ‘surviving’ and the primary concern is about health, illness and death related issues. In certain cases thoughts of dying can become very prominent in certain individuals and they may want to hold on to life through family or creative work which remains even after a person’s death.

Aging cannot be considered a strictly chronological process but rather a psychological process when there is a negative rather than a positive force that justifies a person’s existence. Even a child goes through the process of aging and grows up to an adult but since the child is stepping into the world and expanding horizons the process of aging for a child is positive and the primary aging phenomenon is through ‘knowing’ as a child grows up to know and contribute as an adult. Developing an identity becomes the primary motivation for life and with young adulthood, individuals quickly switch on to the ‘achieving’ mode as young adulthood is about using the knowledge gained to achieve money, fame or even enlightenment for that matter. The ‘living’ stage comes next in middle adulthood as I have discussed and at this time not only the fruits of achievements begin to reveal but the future is also secured with financial and emotional security provided by laying the foundations of family and professional life in the earlier stage. All these stages of knowing, achieving and living are positive phases although all these stages may have specific dilemmas, yet the final stage of surviving is primarily motivated by a fear of death and this negative force brings about the real process of aging. Thus it is easily understood why aging is primarily a psychological process. The fear of death reinforced in old age brings out a negative force in life and if this negative force is somehow overturned or made positive, the process of aging will no longer be seen as something negative and detrimental for an older person.

Of course, it is important to understand how the process of aging could be turned into something positive. The vast amount of literature, articles, TV programs, radio shows and newspaper columns highlight the process of aging as something largely physiological and something that has to be accepted, at best in a positive way. It’s as if aging is something negative but will have to be looked at positively. I would suggest that the process of aging being primarily psychological as explained by the fear of death, it is only caused by a negative force but it is not inherently negative and can become a positive process. I’m not suggesting cosmetic surgery or turning back time in terms of body image, but moving beyond body image and developing a ‘soul identity’ could actually completely overturn the process of aging significantly. Identifying oneself with the soul as sages do and developing a spiritual potential within could go a long way in actually preventing psychological and in turn the physiological aspects of aging. During ancient times, people led deeply spiritual lives and lived longer and looked younger than we do. Soul searching helps in overcoming fear of death and if old age is seen as a step towards one’s ultimate spiritual completion and the right time to explore other creative dimensions of life that have been ignored earlier, old age can become the most fruitful and the most positive phase in one’s life.

Social Psychology – The Myth of Kitty Genovese and Bystander Apathy

For several decades, Kitty Genovese has been famous to many psychology students, psychologists and anyone interested in psychology. Kitty was an American woman who became famous for her murder. She was stabbed to death in New York. What was so interesting about her murder was the reaction of her neighbours, which prompted the naming of a psychological phenomenon – the bystander effect or “Genovese syndrome.”

On March 13th, 1964, Kitty was driving home around 3.15am. She parked about 30 metres from her front door. As she walked to her door, she was approached by Winston Moseley. Moseley overtook her and stabbed her twice in the back. Kitty screamed. Her screams were heard by several neighbours. But it was a cold night, many had their windows shut and few recognized it as a cry for help. One of the neighbours did shout at Moseley, “Let that girl alone”. Moseley ran away and Kitty made her way to her apartment. Kitty was seriously injured, in full sight of her neighbours, but no one helped her.

Some called to the police, but it was not given a high priority, as it was thought she was “only” beaten up. Witnesses observed Moseley get into his car and drive away. He then returned ten minutes later and found Kitty barely conscious at the back of the building. Out of sight, he attached her again, stabbing her several more times. She tried to defend herself, as was shown by knife wounds on her hands. He sexually assaulted her as she lay dying. He also stole money from her and left her to die. The attacks spanned over half an hour.

A few minutes later, a witness did call the police. The police and ambulance arrived, but she died on the way to the hospital.

The media then reported that 38 people had witnessed or heard her attack. The New York Times printed an article – “Thirty Eight who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.” This led to a media frenzy and much psychological research. What had possessed these witnesses to do NOTHING whilst Kitty was being stabbed and murdered?

The murder of Kitty also led to psychological research. This psychological phenomenon became known as bystander apathy, the bystander effect or Genovese syndrome. It is basically a phenomenon where someone is less likely to intervene in an emergency situation when other people are present and able to help, than they would if they were alone.

An individual alone is more likely to intervene if someone needs help – bystander intervention. In 1968, John Darley and Bibb Latane studied the bystander effect in the laboratory. They left a participant alone in a room and told them to communicate with other participants via an intercom. He/she was actually just talking to a recording. During the study, one participant suddenly pretends to have a seizure. They found that the amount of time taken before the person seeks help varies according to how many other participants were perceived to be around. In other words, the more people we think are also witnessing an event, the slower the person will be in dealing with the situation themselves. So if you have a large group of people observing an emergency, we would expect they would be less likely to help – we expect others to do the helping!

Other examples of this bystander effect have been shown. In 1972, Wolfgang Friedmann was murdered in broad day light and bled to death. In 1995, Deletha Word died after witnesses did not stop her attacker. James Bulger was also another well-publicized case, where James was abducted in a busy shopping centre.

Why does this happen? There is another psychological idea of diffusion of responsibility, which leads to social loafing. People may assume that others in the group are better qualified to help than they are eg. A doctor, a police officer etc, so they are not needed. They may not want to “lose face” in front of others in the crowd, when a “superior” helper offers assistance instead. Another suggestion is that people look at the reactions of others in a crowd to see how they are reacting to the emergency situation. They use this to decide whether to intervene. However, if everyone else in the crowd is doing the same things – is anyone going to help?

So what do you do if you are the one being attacked? The best suggestion is to pick a specific person in the crowd and ask them to “call the police” so they know it is THEIR responsibility.

So back to Kitty. Her death led to a reform in the New York Police Department’s telephone reporting system. It led to a lot of media coverage on how we respond to emergencies. It led to a lot of psychological research. Kitty’s Death also led to the formation of Neighbourhood Watch Schemes. So Kitty’s death did lead to some good and useful outcomes.

However, new research has suggested that Kitty’s murder was not as reported. There were actual only 12 witnesses, not the reported 38. In 2007, three British Researchers have investigated this murder again. Manning, Levine and Collins have disputed this iconic event. They have found no evidence of the presence of 38 witnesses, by examining documents from the time. They have not been able to find evidence that witnesses remained inactive.

The story of Kitty Genovese has become an urban myth or modern parable, telling us about coping with emergency helping. The research of Manning, Levine and Collins will be an interested addition to all psychology students and teachers alike – new textbooks out soon no doubt!!!!!!

Feng Shui, Design Psychology and Bed Placement

I love Feng Shui! Whether you believe this ancient Asian design method is based on ancient wisdom or superstition, Feng Shui includes some valuable principles and is simply fun! Consider these Feng Shui rules:

– Don’t sleep with your feet facing the bedroom door.

– Place head of bed so that you can see the doorway.

– Don’t sleep next to the wall that has the meter box on it.

– Don’t place head of bed next to a bathroom wall.

So where do my husband and I put our bed according to these rules? In our bedroom with four walls, one wall is all closets, one wall backs up to the bathroom, one wall is all doors opening to the garden, and the last one (oh my!) has the meter box on it! Not to worry, Feng Shui has all kinds of rules to fix any problem, including using crystals and houseplants to counteract negative energy.

Design Psychology, based on years of scientific research, comes to some of the same conclusions that Feng Shui practitioners, based on years of experience, utilize. But Design Psychology boldly contradicts the Feng Shui rule that you can’t sleep with your feet facing the bedroom door.

Design Psychology creates rooms to support happiness and well-being. The bedroom, a personal space for refreshment and enjoyment, requires attention to details like the bed placement for comfort. As the main attraction, the bed is usually the focal point of the room. Therefore, position the headboard directly opposite the doorway up against a wall. This creates the visual expansion of the room and underscores the bed’s importance. A greater reason to place the bed so that it faces the doorway is for a feeling of security. People feel safe when they can easily see the door.

The bed represents the beginning and ending of life. In the past, people were conceived, born, and they died in the same bed. You spend more time in your bed than in any other piece of furniture. So, follow Feng Shui rules or Design Psychology principles and place your bed with the head facing the entrance of the room. Not only will this spot reinforce the bed’s significance in your design plan, you will feel comfortable and sleep well!

(c) Copyright 2005 Jeanette J. Fisher. All rights reserved.