Friday, April 06, 2007

Subjective Age

Introspection, trying to watch myself, can be an interesting way of passing the time when there is neither a computer nor a good book readily at hand. My most common version is to observe my reactions to passing women and try to figure out what the characteristics are that determine which I find attractive. Evolutionary psychologists have collected evidence on what physical characteristics men in general, across a wide variety of cultures, find attractive in women, but so far as I know nobody has made a serious effort at the micro version of the project.

Another version is to look at my reactions to other people and see what they say about my self image. One conclusion is that my subjective age is substantially lower than my objective age. The people I intuitively react to as my age peers are in fact noticeably younger than I am.

I have a simple explanation for this pattern; if it is correct, it should apply to most people, not just to me. My self image is based on some sort of weighted average of my experiences over the years. An average from, say, age ten to age 62 is going to come in at less than 62--considerably less unless very heavily weighted towards recent years.

I have, however, an alternative explanation based on experimental data from a very long time ago. At various points in my teens I was a camp councilor. I observed that if the campers in my cabin were, say, eleven year olds, anyone from about fourteen up felt to me like a grown up. The older my campers, the older my subjective definition of adult. Currently a large part of my social interaction is either with my own children--13 and 16--or with the law students I teach. Perhaps that shifts up my subjective experience of the age of people much older than that--even if they are younger than I am.

Anyone else have evidence to offer? Conjectures? Should I blame it all on neoteny?


Anonymous said...

Dr. Friedman,
The problem with introspection is that the very act of it changes what you are observing. It is similar to that old point made by Heisenberg. Observing your reactions to women is of very little information value. You already know, at 62, what kind of looks you go for--not that you can't be delighted by something you've never seen. So, I must say you should find your introspection a little more boring that it seems you do. It's much more interesting, I believe, to view oneself interacting with others--having been videotaped without one's knowledge.

The Owner said...

Mr. Friedman,

I'm not sure if this is related to your post and questions or not, but here is something I've noticed: the wisdom of children is always startling. Additionally, your peers will always surprise you with how immature and irresponsible they can be sometimes.

When "kids say the darndest things," it's often because they're actively trying to think and behave in an adult way. It's a flattering form of mimicry and it's part of a child's learning and self-discovery process. I think synapses fuse together during each one of those moments.

And then you've got someone your age who just completely forgets how old they are for a moment. But are they forgetting how old they are, or are they not trying to be adults at that moment? Are we all just kids inside, no matter how old we get, and we simply get better and better at imitating adults the longer we are able to practice it?

Joseph said...

I'm reminded of Scott Adam's theory that people have permanent ages. In my case, I think I have two permanent ages: 10 and 60. Maybe I'm a cranky old pre-adolescent.

Anonymous said...

I keep bouncing around - part of me is always 8, when I'm tired or discouraged I'm in my 20s reliving the stupid things I did then. I don't really think I'm 60 much of the time. When I'm feeling busy and competent I really don't know my age. Maybe that's 60 - less hormone-poisoned, a little more secure, less need to please at any cost. Or am I kidding myself?

Somena Woman said...

I remember very clearly being very small and going to McDonalds and thinking that grown-ups were at the till, and serving food and how nice they were. But somehow, between the age of 6 and 35, that Sneaky Fast Food Corporation has replaced all those grown-up with kids! And I have no idea how and when they did it, either! ;)

I think it was around the time that I took my own child to MacDonalds for the first time that I noticed it.

Seriously though David, you are one of the more spry and youngest 60 year olds I've ever met. I never would have guessed you were 60... I mean, sure, I can do the math, if I think hard about wrote "Machinery of Freedom" around the time I was born...

But seriously, I don't know too many grown-ups who are as good at playing with their kids or other people's kids as you. I still have a picture of you being piled on by Becca, Bill and Josh from our first trip to CA when Josh was just 7-8. The B's are lucky to have parents who have cultivated a proper appreciation for play in life.

I'm a strong believer in the "you are only as old as you feel" school of thought. I think the phenom you are describing is true for most people... I've asked much older people than you what age do they feel that they are... and 9 times out of ten when asked they've said somewhere in their late 20's to 30's and they are still waiting for the feeling that they are "fully grown-up".

I don't think we ever fully lose that sense of not knowing 100% what we are supposed to do, be and become... and that someday we will have that "grown-up" feeling that we are sure our parents had... except I asked my dad about it, and he confided that he's still waiting too! :)

Anonymous said...

I reckon that as you get older, the brain slows down, so subjectively time flits by faster, which means that the bulk of remembered subjective you-hood is in your past.

Mr. W said...

When you're 10, one year is 10% of your life, and when you're 50, one year is 2% of your life. So as one ages, a given unit of time is a smaller proportion of one's life. It seems that it took a lot longer to go from age 10 to 20, then it did to go from age 30 to 40. Given this, a weighted average would be subjectively skewed towards our younger years.

earth that was said...

as my mother would say to speculations of this type: "...oh just grow up."

Dennis Mangan said...

I think that it's a function of two things: our present era, in which adults act like children (i.e. would someone age fifty, fifty years ago, say he felt a kid?); and the "impostor syndrome": when we become adults, we feel out of place and realize that no one is in charge.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Friedman,

I was wondering if it is possible to get access to the experimental data that you are talking about. I am looking at doing similar research from a behavioral stand-point and would love to get some data-points from you.

Thank you,

David Friedman said...


David Buss is the person who has published evidence on what characteristics are seen as attractive across societies.