PhD student Madeleine Long writes about a recent study revealing the risk of oversharing as we age
As we age, we become less sensitive to others’ perspectives. In turn, we may end up sharing more than is necessary – information that could be revealing or, in extreme cases, put ourselves or others at risk.
Sharing private information
Consider a scenario where you are given private information.Your neighbour tells you they’re going to hide a set of keys to their house under the big rock by the tree in their backyard. They’re letting you know this so you have access to the house in case of an emergency when they’re out of town.
Clearly, this is information that should not be shared with others. However, one day, at a social gathering, people are discussing upcoming vacation plans and the subject of house sitting and keys are brought up. You mention that your neighbour puts their keys under a big rock by the tree in the backyard, which you think is a good idea.
While this may seem relevant to you and the conversation you’re having, you didn’t consider that other people could use that information for criminal purposes. Sure enough, a week later, the neighbour’s house is broken into and valuable goods are stolen.
Why do we make these mistakes?
Let’s imagine a typical conversation. We exchange information with a partner based on what we believe their prior knowledge to be, including what they do/don’t know and should/shouldn’t know.
How do our brains juggle this? It seems plausible that when we consider our partner’s perspective we must inhibit our own, and that over the course of a conversation we switch back and forth from our perspective to our partner’s, updating information along the way.
To test this, we had 100 adults aged 17-84 complete tasks measuring inhibition (the ability to ignore distracting information), and switching (the ability to efficiently shift attention). We were interested in whether these functions predicted how well people considered their partner’s perspective in the communication task described below.
During the task, a participant tapped an iPad screen to reveal four images. All images were visible to the participant, however one of the images was obscured from their partner’s view. We wanted to see whether participants would reveal too much – by giving away information about the hidden object (e.g. “I want you to point to the larger hat” when there was only one mutually visible hat). Or, in the opposite case, say too little: by not differentiating between similar, mutually visible objects. We reasoned that those sensitive to their partner’s point of view would adjust their speech according to what their partner saw, not what stood out to them.
Older adults were more likely to mention details about the hidden object, unwittingly revealing private information to their partner.
We found an age-related decline in switching, and this ability determined how well older adults responded to their partner’s perspective. For younger adults, inhibition predicted perspective-taking skills.
Our results suggest that as we age, we may rely on different brain functions to filter speech.
Where do we go from here?
First we should attempt to replicate the results to see if they are consistently true. If so, we can design targeted training programs jointly tackling perspective decline and the brain functions behind it. (Imagine playing a game that encourages you to switch between two sections, or a social activity that involves focusing attention while ignoring distracting cues. There are many possibilities.)
As we live longer, and find ourselves in more vulnerable situations, this sort of training could be useful in preventing us from revealing too much information when it comes to important matters- finances, medical records, or even where our neighbour left their keys.
More information on our study
This blog was originally posted on Madeleine Long’s website.
About Madeleine Long
Madeleine is a PhD student in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences (PPLS) at the University of Edinburgh.
She is supervised by Hannah Rohde, Antonella Sorace, and Thomas Bak.
Her research interests include cognitive ageing, second language acquisition, and the pragmatics of human communication.