Consider the dotty old aunt who comes to family reunions and blurts things others might think but would never say. Things like, “You don’t need that second piece of cake.” Or “You’ll never get a job dressed like a hoochie mama,” or “Is that a toupee or a dead squirrel on your head?”
Usually, a beat of shocked silence is followed by nervous chatter about anything else while the person critiqued dies a thousand deaths and silently vows never to attend a family gathering again.
But what if Aunt Dotty actually speaks useful truths? She might be dead on with both her assessment and subsequent advice, according to a charming study published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
We know that decline in the brain’s executive function (EF) often results in lowered inhibitions, generally not considered a good thing. But this research finds an upside to lowered inhibitions.When presented with a photo and information about an obese teenager seeking help for a litany of woes, including low energy and decreased social engagement , people with lower EF (mean age, 72.53) were more likely to spout useful advice than same-age individuals with higher EF, or young adults.
In fact, the lower the EF, the more likely individuals were to cite weight as a source of the teen’s troubles, and the more advice they gave. In addition, physicians specializing in obesity evaluated the advice and ranked the suggestions from low EF participants as more constructive than advice from the others. (For purposes of this discussion, we set aside any speculation that the fictional teen’s problems were due to something other than obesity.)
In addition, two naïve coders found the lower EF participants seemed more empathetic than not only the students–not surprising, since older people often seem more benign than youngsters–but also the people with higher EF/more inhibitions. (In case you’re wondering, as I did, researchers found no evidence that gender mattered.)
This seemed such a quirky little study that I dropped a note to lead researcher Evan P. Apfelbaum, Ph.D., of Northwestern University to ask what inspired it. Naturally, his motives were serious.
In his research on race and diversity, Apfelbaum found that in interactions between Whites and Blacks, carefully avoiding (“effortful inhibition”) any mention of race so as not to be perceived as racist can actually make a person seem unfriendly and, well, racist.
“Inhibition is typically considered to be a good thing, something that sustains healthy functioning,” Apfelbaum wrote to me. “But, in these thorny social situations, it seemed that inhibition represented more of an obstacle than an asset. Inhibition was fuel to a maladaptive approach to eliciting positive outcomes in interracial interaction and in later research, we found, to providing useful advice to an obese teenager. Sometimes overwhelming social pressures can lead us to inhibit in a way that is well-intentioned, but ultimately comes at the expense of having frank and authentic dialogue.”
I often err on the side of tough love (born with low EF?), so I find this reassuring. I’m rude, but authentic. But consider, too, recent op-ed columns–one by Leonard Pitts, the other by Clarence Page–that address a similar issue: the ways we inhibit frank discussion of our unpalatable past by, for example, expurgating the word “nigger” from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Of course, motives matter in authentic discussion–are you doing it to help or hurt? But this study suggests that Aunt Dotty might actually have a point.