March 4, 2013

Cornell Study Says Older People Less Likely to ‘Save the Best for Last’

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In a high-tech world with constant communication — where purchases and important decisions can be made with the push of a button — understanding how people arrange sequences of events can be compelling. As such, when Cornell researchers investigated the value of the age-old concept of “saving the best for last,” they were led to interesting conclusions.

A recent Cornell study published in Psychology and Aging reported that as people age, their tendency to save the best for last decreases.

The study — which aims to understand how people of different ages arrange sequences of events over time — is based on an approach based on the “realization that people do not select events in isolation from each other, but create streams of experiences over time,” according to Prof. Corinna Loeckenhoff, human development.

“When creating sequences, younger people tend to begin with the negative and end with the positive. … With age, people are more likely to intersperse positive and negative experiences,” Loeckenhoff said.

Gregory Eells, director of counseling and psychological services for Gannett Health Services, said the study results “make sense developmentally.”

“For older people, there’s not a lot of time left. When you’re young, you are laying the foundation for the rest of your life, and that requires delaying gratification,” he said.

Loeckenhoff co-authored the study with Andrew Reed Ph.D. ’11 and Skye Maresca ’11.

According to Loeckenhoff, the team directed two studies in which about 90 adults were shown a series of photos with positive, negative or neutral content and asked participants to choose the order in which they would like to see them. The younger adults preferred sequences that began with negative photos and ended with positive ones. This preference, however, decreased with age, as older adults chose sequences in which different types of photos were interspersed throughout the sequence,  Loeckenhoff said.

The study has important theoretical implications, Loecken­hoff said, adding that although additional research is required to fully understand the mechanisms behind the order of preferences, differences in the perception of “time horizons” –– how people perceive length of life –– appear to play a role in the study. Time horizons vary with age, and younger adults, who saw their future as “wide open,” were more likely to save the best for last, whereas older adults with more limited horizons preferred balanced sequences, she said.

“Saving the best for last” is a trend Eells said he notices in many students he sees at Cornell. When considering students who may sacrifice sleep to study before an exam, Eells said, “our psyches need variability.”

Rachel Samuel ’16 said she can relate to the study’s findings.

“I do agree with the study because if I’m doing something fun, I’ll enjoy it less if I know that I have work that I should be doing. I always get so much more satisfaction when doing things as a reward for getting all the hard things out of the way,” she said.

Aly Stein ’13 echoed Samuel’s sentiments, noting the relevance of the study to her current experiences as a senior.

“By the time senior year rolls around, seniors tend to scurry to complete all of the ‘161 Things to Do.’ We feel that, in some ways, the end is nearing and that we have so much left to do,” she said. “We put things off until the end because of having so much work, but by now I know I personally have re-prioritized.”

Original Author: Lauren Bergelson