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Make me happy

This article, by Justin Baiocchi, was originally published in The Northern Daily Leader on 8 April 2017.

For some time now, I have found that I’m less and less inclined to watch the news on television. Most of it can hardly be called news anymore anyway – a murder here; a violent assault there; politicians nit-picking and back-stabbing each other for fun; corruption hearings; prison sentencing…the average television news broadcast these days is less uplifting than the obituary section in the newspaper. It turns out however, that there’s a very valid reason for my growing disinterest in the news – I’m getting old! Researchers have found that as we age, we prefer to avoid experiences and situations that increase our negative stress levels. So, the fact that I’d rather watch Iron Man (a movie largely about explosions) rather than Spotlight (a harrowing account of the exposure of child abuse practices by priests in the Boston area) says more about my age than my lack of taste in movies.

Apparently, as we get older we start to instinctively avoid places, events or situations which make us feel bad. The theory is that subconsciously, we know we are running out of time (literally), so we want to maximise the time we spend feeling good and happy. We ignore or avoid negative things and seek out those things which make us happier. In researcher-language: “This attentional bias is consistent with older adults’ generally better emotional well-being and their tendency to remember negative less well than positive information.” So rather than watch the news, with all its upsetting stories of murder and mayhem, as you get older you prefer to watch Gardening Australia or Better Homes and Gardens. Sounds like a perfectly good night in if you ask me.

A problem arises however, when we start to also avoid information that contradicts our existing opinions, on the basis that you don’t want it to upset you. This is important when it comes to investing, where a failure to keep an open mind can lead to a failure to make appropriate investment decisions. Refusing to consider views different from your own, leaves you at risk of being blindsided by change. In turns out that researchers have even identified exactly when this preference for positive experiences becomes a hindrance to effective decision-making – age 70! From then on, apparently, “…older investors exhibit worse stock selection ability and poor diversification skill. The age-skill relationship has an inverted U-shape and, furthermore, the skill deteriorates sharply around the age of 70”. At that age, your years of experience are seemingly outweighed by your poor decision-making abilities. One of those rare cases where you really are both happier and poorer. Now that’s something to look forward to.