YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Disagreeable now? You may be smarter later

A study indicates that crabby people might make more-intelligent seniors -- and that they're often sharper.

October 22, 2006|Joe Burris | Baltimore Sun

Are you a 40-something grouch who's first to shout invectives in a slow-moving checkout lane? A youngster who mocks your dad's wise counsel? A graduate student known for driving the renowned professor crazy with sardonic verbiage?

Take hope: Today, you might be dismissed as a smart aleck. In your old age, you might be smarter than average.

Morgan State University psychology professor Jacqueline Bichsel recently co-wrote a study suggesting that, upon reaching 60, disagreeable people maintain a higher level of intelligence than more easy-going seniors.

"These individuals have a higher vocabulary," she said. "They have a better use of words, a better knowledge of facts."

The study also suggests that those dismissed as grumpy old men and feisty old ladies are often smarter in some ways than the young. The study's findings fly in the face of notions that intellect and memory fade with age, which has made it a hot topic in the psychology world.

Bichsel, 40, who recently joined the faculty of Morgan State, in Baltimore, says publication of her study has produced an unanticipated 15 minutes of research fame.

"People are just intrigued by the fact that disagreeableness can be a good thing, particularly in old age," said Bichsel, who began the research as an assistant professor at the Harrisburg campus of Penn State, along with Thomas J. Baker, a graduate student in psychology at York University in Toronto.

The two tested 239 women and 142 men ages 19 to 89. Education ranged from some high school to graduate degrees.

Participants took two tests: One was a personality assessment designed to measure five major personality traits: openness to experience, continuousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

The other measured general intellectual ability and specific cognitive abilities. It covered such areas as phonetic awareness, long-term memory retrieval and general intellectual ability.

"We were actually looking to see if any personality traits were predictors of intelligence, either in older ages or younger ages," she said. "One of the things we found is that the intelligence factor that was best predicted by personality was general intelligence.

"That's the type of intelligence that consists of knowing facts, vocabulary -- basically the same kind of intelligence you'd use if you were playing 'Jeopardy.' "

The results: Adults 19 to 60 did not outperform those over 60 in any of the cognitive ability measures. Their results were comparable to those of some participants over 60.

Yet a third group of those over 60 posted results that were superior to their contemporaries as well as to the younger group.

Moreover, Bichsel wrote, "These results suggest that superior, crystallized ability is relatively strongly associated with low agreeableness scores, meaning that older individuals who have a tendency toward being unfriendly and uncooperative maintain higher levels of breadth and depth of general knowledge."

The study does not measure cause and effect but correlation, so it's not possible to be certain about reasons for the results.

Still, Bichsel speculated, "What we expect is that when individuals are younger, it's openness to experience that allows us to gain all this knowledge. So you're more open to new experiences, new things, and those individuals at younger ages tend to gain more knowledge.

"But then openness as you get older probably isn't as important since you've spent most of your life already attaining the knowledge.

"What appears to be most important in these older ages is your ability to be a skeptic, to be disagreeable, to go against the crowd, engage in debate, all those things that are associated with disagreeableness.

"It sort of keeps your mind sharp to have some of those traits," she added. "If you think about it, if you engage in debate you have to use words to make your point. That's what a disagreeable person does. They like to make their point, so they're going to seek out words to help them do that."

Yet that doesn't mean that if you're 60 or younger and prone to be pushed around, standing up for yourself more often now will ensure you'll hold onto your smarts.

"What research has shown is that personality doesn't change a lot during the lifespan," Bichsel said. "And no single experience is going to change a person's personality."

Bichsel presented her findings at the American Psychological Assn. meeting in New Orleans on Aug. 10 and found many in agreement.

Scores of people approached her afterward saying that it validated their own disagreeableness.

But not everyone is comfortable with the findings.

"The unfortunate interpretation of Bichsel's study is that it's good for older people to be cranky, and I feel that it reinforces those ageist stereotypes," said Susan K. Whitbourne, a University of Massachusetts psychology professor.

Los Angeles Times Articles