The idea that young people might find the world a stranger, more exciting place than older people makes intuitive sense. They’ve had less time to grow familiar with life. What’s irrational is to believe that more significant public events happen when people are young. Of course they’re just as likely to happen at any time of life. Nonetheless, a new study suggests that thanks to a phenomenon known as the “Youth Bias” many of us do believe that more major public events happen during a person’s youth, than at any other time.
Jonathan Koppel and Dorthe Bernsten began by asking 200 US participants recruited online to imagine a typical infant of their own culture and gender. The participants then read the following text: “…throughout this person’s life, many important public events will take place, both nationally and internationally, such as wars, the deaths of public figures, and sporting events. How old do you think this person is likely to be when the event that they consider to be the most important public event of their lifetime takes place?”
The question was phrased deliberately to tap people’s beliefs about the subjective sense of when the most important public event is likely to occur in a lifetime. There was an overwhelming bias for the participants to mention ages in the second and third decades of life (from 11 to 30 years). Splitting the participants into an older (aged 33 to 81) and younger group (aged 18 to 31), both groups showed this bias, although the younger group specifically mentioned an age in the range 16 to 20 more often, while the older group more often mentioned an age in the range 6 to 10.
Next, the researchers recruited 198 more participants online and this time they tweaked the wording of their question. The participants were again asked to imagine an infant of their own gender and culture. Then they read this text: ” … how old do you think this person is likely to be when the most important public event of their lifetime takes place?”
This time the question was phrased deliberately to tap participants’ beliefs about the objective distribution of major public events across a lifetime, regardless of the subjective impact of events on a person. Again there was evidence of a youth bias. The participants far more often mentioned ages within the range 11 to 30. This was true for the whole sample, and when the sample was split into younger and older groups.
The researchers explained there is no rational reason to suppose that major public events will more often occur in a person’s youth. “These findings represent the discovery of a heretofore unnoted cognitive bias, the youth bias,” they said. “The youth bias holds that the most notable experiences of one’s life, whether private or public, occur in young adulthood.”
The researchers mentioned people’s perceptions about the timing of private and public events because prior studies by them and others have shown that people’s narratives about their personal lives also show a bias towards perceiving more important personal events – such as marriages – as occurring more often earlier in life.
The notion of a youth bias in people’s perceptions about the timing of major public and private events also chimes with research on a memory phenomenon known as “the reminiscence bump“. This is our tendency to recall more events from our teens and twenties than any other stage of our lives. In fact, Koppel and Bernsten speculated that perhaps the Youth Bias “structures recall,” heightening access to our memories from our youth. They added that their discovery of a Youth Bias “opens up new vistas” for research, including studies to find out whether the bias exists in other cultures outside of the USA, and whether it applies to other domains, such as people’s beliefs about when in a lifetime a person is most likely to meet the best friend they’ll ever have.
Koppel J, and Berntsen D (2014). Does everything happen when you are young? Introducing the Youth Bias. Quarterly journal of experimental psychology, 67 (3), 417-23 PMID: 24286365