Experience shape seniors’ moral compass

If you’re an older adult and recent news reports about the firing of media icons Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Garrison Keillor have rattled you, you’re not alone.

 I’d like you to read these two statements:

“Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France a record seven consecutive times.”

“Lance Armstrong was banned from sanctioned Olympic sports for life as a result of long-term doping offenses.”

Which of these facts carries greater weight when gauging Armstrong as a person?

I posed this question to a group of seniors in Calabasas recently. It didn’t surprise me that all but a couple chose the second statement.

Studies have shown that when judging strangers and rating their likability, seniors weigh negative information about moral character more heavily than information about their abilities or accomplishments.

This is partially due to the fact that older adults have a wealth of life experiences that affect how we process and respond to emotional information. As a residual effect of the culmination of their life experiences, seniors are highly sensitive to emotional signs that aren’t consistent with society’s values.

If this is true, then news of the inappropriate behavior of these media giants toward women is sure to weigh heavily on older adults, regardless of the past accomplishments of those accused.

Throughout our lives we’ve all made countless choices, some that feel morally right and some that feel morally wrong. The more “good” decisions we make, the easier it becomes to negatively judge those who make “bad” ones.

Five years ago the Atlantic/Aspen Institute conducted the American Values Survey. At that time 7 in 10 respondents said traditional values were weakening in the U.S., and over half felt they’d weaken further over the next decade.

The question is: Are our societal values weakening over time or are our values just changing?

In the 1980s I worked for two highly regarded consumer-product companies. The first was a candy company started by two brothers who were still at the helm when I joined. Their personal brand of family values permeated the organization, and I always felt proud to gain my initial sales training in such an ethical firm.

The second company I worked for, a soft-drink manufacturer, had the reputation as a work-hard, play-hard company. It was quite an eye-opener when, during my first week on the job, my male boss and co-workers took me to a strip club for my initiation. I’d held my new boss in such high regard beforehand, and after this experience I could barely look him in the eye. I was embarrassed. Did I send some signal that this kind of thing was acceptable to me?

It was a different time back then, particularly in the maledominated sales world. Women co-workers were either a source of entertainment or competition. Neither attitude made the environment a comfortable one.

My brother-in-law works with that company now. He says things have totally changed. The company is now run by a woman, sales people are professionals and with rare exception everyone is treated with respect. If there is knowledge of harassment, it is reckoned with.

So, as it pertains to sexual harassment in the workplace, have our values strengthened or weakened over time? Evidence strongly suggests the former.

I believe our societal values have improved. There continue to be new yardsticks by which to measure past actions.

As our senior population grows, our elders, who tend to hold society to high standards, will hopefully use their lifetime of experience to influence change today and in our future.

Join me. Let’s continue to tell our stories to raise awareness and advance change.

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Andrea GallagherAndrea Gallagher

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