Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cranky? It may benefit you in long run

The Baltimore Sun

Are you a forty-something grouch who's first to shout invectives in a slow-moving checkout lane? A youngster who mocks your dad's counsel? A graduate student known for driving your professor crazy with sardonic verbiage?

Take hope: Today, you might be dismissed as a smart-aleck. In your old age, you might be viewed as smarter than average.

Or at least that's what Jacqueline Bichsel suggests.

Bichsel, a psychology professor at Morgan State in Baltimore, recently co-authored a study that invites the conclusion that upon reaching 60, disagreeable people maintain a higher level of intelligence than more easy-going seniors.

"These individuals have a higher vocabulary," she said. "They have a better use of words, a better knowledge of facts."

It also suggests that those dismissed as grumpy old men and women are often smarter in some ways than the young. The study's findings fly in the face of notions that intellect and memory fade with age, and that has made it a hot topic in the psychology world.

Bichsel, 40, says publication of her study has produced an unanticipated 15 minutes of research fame; her work has drawn attention around the world.

"People are just intrigued by the fact that disagreeableness can be a good thing, particularly in old age," said Bichsel, who began the research as an assistant professor at the Harrisburg campus of Penn State.

Bichsel and Thomas Baker, a graduate student in psychology at York University in Toronto, tested 239 women and 142 men ages 19 to 89. Education ranged from some high school to graduate degrees.

Study participants were administered two tests: One was a personality assessment designed to measure openness to experience, continuousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The other measures general intellectual ability and specific cognitive abilities. It covers such areas as phonetic awareness, long-term memory retrieval and general intellectual ability.

The results: Those age 19-60 did not outperform those over 60 in any cognitive ability measure. Their results were comparable with those of some participants over 60.

Yet a third group of those over 60 posted results that were superior to their counterparts in age as well as to the younger group.

Moreover, Bichsel wrote, "These results suggest that superior ... ability is relatively strongly associated with low agreeableness scores, meaning that older individuals who have a tendency toward being unfriendly and uncooperative maintain higher levels of breadth and depth of general knowledge."

Yet that doesn't mean that if you're 60 or younger and prone to be pushed around, standing up for yourself more often now will ensure you'll hold on to your smarts.

"What research has shown is that personality doesn't change a lot during the lifespan," Bichsel said. "And no single experience is going to change a person's personality."

Not everyone is comfortable with the findings, which Bichsel presented in August at the American Psychological Association meeting in New Orleans.

"The unfortunate interpretation of Bichsel's study is that it's good for older people to be cranky, and I feel that it reinforces those ageist stereotypes," said Susan Whitbourne, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts.

She added that the study examined two correlated factors, personality and intelligence, "and it is impossible to know what causes what, or if both factors are related to some third, unmeasured factor, such as amount of education.

"Secondly," she said, "we don't know if the relationship between personality and IQ are different for the different age groups because they always were that way or because there was some function of getting older that made being less agreeable related to higher intelligence."

Philip Ackerman, a professor of psychology at Georgia Tech, argued that while there are relationships between personality, hunger for knowledge and memory retention, they are not large in scope.

"Domains such as critical thinking, at least in terms of abstract problem-solving, are not much affected by personality traits," he said, "but what knowledge one acquires throughout the adult years is more related to personality."

Still, Bichsel stands by her findings. In response to Whitbourne's assertion about ageist stereotypes, she said: "I would have to disagree. I feel it's just the opposite. The fact that disagreeableness can be viewed as a good thing negates the stereotypes."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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