Why Do Old People Get Conservative? A Self-Esteem Boost

The conventional wisdom is that old people get conservative. Here's another clue why: It might soothe existential anxiety.

Miller McCune reports on new research that provides one fascinating reason people may get more conservative as they age: It makes them feel better about themselves.

The researchers found growing older was associated with lower levels of self-esteem among those on the liberal side of the scale. But conservatives were spared that decline, leading them to conclude that “conservatism buffers the negative effect of age on self-esteem.”


Why would this be? Van Hiel and Brebels argue that old age is a time to take stock of your life and attempt to find meaning. For most, this means looking back at your experiences and accomplishments in the context of your social environment. A social-conservative belief system, which values your culture or society above others, would elevate your own personal status, thus propping up your self-esteem.


The idea, as I understand it, is that old people, being nearer to death than the rest of us, think about their culture as an extension of themselves that will endure after they die. If one has a strongly held belief that their cultural practices are objectively superior, that provides some existential comfort, especially when the alternative is dying in a relativist fog.