Have you ever been speaking to an elderly person, and been horrified by a racist comment they’ve made? I have, and it was from someone who was very dear to me. The comment horrified me – I had never heard this person express racist views before.
At the time I brushed it off. I explained the comment to myself as being the result of the person being from a different era that had different, less egalitarian social values.
My explanation and justification is apparently common is such circumstances. But scientists say there could be more to it than the person simply being from ‘different times’.
Brain atrophy leads to loss of inhibition
As people age, their brains start to atrophy – in particular, the frontal lobes start to deteriorate. The frontal lobes control executive functioning – our ability to reason, use logic, apply filters, and to inhibit inappropriate thoughts.
This deterioration of the brain may mean that thoughts people had when they were young but knew to keep to themselves, in their old age they may be more likely to blurt out.
Fear, resentment, and loss of identity as death approaches
Another theory about why older people appear more racist is that as seniors approach death, they become more anxious and fearful. Dr Steve Taylor, a psychologist at Leeds Beckett University, told Business Insider that this fear of death can make people more “naturalistic, materialistic, and conventional”.
As people struggle with their identity as they grow older, they may be inclined to lash out at the ‘other’ in order to bolster their feelings of belonging.
Psychotherapist Allison Abrams told Business Insider that people who join hate groups, such as neo-nazis – form bonds based on resentment.
““If you don’t like things about yourself, it’s a lot easier to project that onto others than to look at yourself,” she said.
More to it that just ‘different times’
“The research says even if people grew up in that era [of segregation] and had those attitudes, they can learn and they can become more liberal,” said Abrams.
“We have that ability as humans – our personalities change, and we can become more open,” she said.
Some people do become more open as they get older, yet many don’t. Though there are a number of reasons we can give for why older people appear to be more racist, it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to pinpoint exactly why.