Reasoning about social conflicts improves into old age

Igor Grossmann, Jinkyung Na, Michael E.W. Varnum, Denise C. Park, Shinobu Kitayama, Richard E. Nisbett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

192 Scopus citations


It is well documented that aging is associated with cognitive declines in many domains. Yet it is a common lay belief that some aspects of thinking improve into old age. Specifically, older people are believed to show better competencies for reasoning about social dilemmas and conflicts. Moreover, the idea of aging-related gains in wisdom is consistent with views of the aging mind in developmental psychology. However, to date research has provided little evidence corroborating this assumption. We addressed this question in two studies, using a representative community sample. We asked participants to read stories about intergroup conflicts and interpersonal conflicts and predict how these conflicts would unfold. We show that relative to young and middle-aged people, older people make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge. Our coding scheme was validated by a group of professional counselors and wisdom researchers. Social reasoning improves with age despite a decline in fluid intelligence. The results suggest that it might be advisable to assign older individuals to key social roles involving legal decisions, counseling, and intergroup negotiations. Furthermore, given the abundance of research on negative effects of aging, this study may help to encourage clinicians to emphasize the inherent strengths associated with aging.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7246-7250
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number16
StatePublished - Apr 20 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Aging
  • Intelligence
  • Problem-solving
  • Reasoning
  • Wisdom

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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