Welcome to another edition of Psy-Q, the column that delves into the JSTOR archives to give you the psychological intelligence behind the stories making the headlines.
One story that has recently been making quite a splash is Bruce Grierson’s piece in The New York Times: “What if age is nothing but a mind-set?” The feature reviews the life and work of Harvard Psychology Professor Ellen Langer, who has come up with some pioneering—if controversial—methods for tackling the health problems associated with aging.
Langer made her name with a study conducted in the early 1980s. Eight men in their 70s spent five days in a house in which the clock had been turned back to 1959. No expense was spared: the researchers even went to the effort of playing recordings of radio and TV shows from the era (on suitably vintage equipment, of course). But this was no exercise in reminiscence. In fact, the participants were specifically prohibited from reminiscing, and told to live their 1959 lives in the present tense; talking, eating, drinking, smoking and—yes—partying like it was 1959.
The aim was to see if, by turning back the clock psychologically, the participants could also turn back the clock physiologically, becoming fitter, happier, and generally healthier. And it seemed to work. According to the New York Times story, the participants were “suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller”; improvements not seen amongst a control group who visited the 1959 house, and reminisced about—but did not relive—the era. (By the way, if you’re thinking that this sounds like a promising reality TV format, the BBC already got there first with a 2010 show in which minor celebrities reported similar health improvements after being sent back to their 1975 heyday).
Although Langer never submitted the 1959-house study to a scientific journal for scrutiny by her peers, we can get a general idea of the plausibility of her claims by assessing some of her published academic papers on the topic. Most relevant is a recent article published by Langer and her collaborators at Harvard and MIT—it’s not currently on JSTOR, but you can read an abstract here. The first study showed that women who reported feeling younger after a haircut were rated, by independent judges, as looking younger than women who reported no such change (the photos were cropped so that the raters could not see the haircut itself). More impressively, the women who reported feeling younger showed a drop in blood pressure; both systolic and diastolic (though a note of caution is in order, as the authors do not report a statistically significant interaction indicating that the women who reported feeling no younger showed no such drop in blood pressure).
The second study used archival data to investigate the effect of wearing a uniform on morbidity. The idea here is that employees who wear their own clothes to work will tend to dress in a manner typical for their age, and will hence be more likely to notice themselves aging, and—as a result—to die younger. The data for higher earners (>$25k) supported this hypothesis. For lower earners, however, the pattern reversed with uniform-wearers dying younger. The authors speculate that this may be because many low-paid uniformed jobs (e.g., waitressing) combine a high workload with job insecurity; a combination that studies have shown leads to higher levels of heart disease. While this speculation seems plausible enough in itself, the hypothesis of a link between uniform-wearing and mortality is weakened by the need to add this additional factor post hoc.
Third, the authors summarize a number of previous studies that find a link between male pattern baldness and prostate cancer/heart disease. The idea here is that, since balding men see themselves as older, they will be more likely to suffer from age-related diseases than non-balding men of the same age. However, this hypothesis is undermined by the authors’ own admission that “biological and genetic factors [also] likely play a role in the higher incidence of prostate cancer and cardiovascular disease among prematurely bald men.” It would also seem important to rule out the possibility that baldness drives some men to drink (or comfort eating, or drug use, or some other risk factor for cancer and heart disease).
The fourth set of studies investigates the hypothesis that since childbirth is mainly the preserve of younger women, women who have children later in life will see themselves as younger, and hence go on to live longer. Again, however, although the data pattern as predicted by the hypothesis, it is very difficult to conclusively rule out the effect of a number of possible confounds. For example, the authors “acknowledge that the older mother has had more time to amass work experience and has probably saved up more money,” both of which would seem likely to contribute to a healthier dotage.
Finally, the paper reviews studies which test the claim that “you’re only as young as the (wo)man you feel”; that people who marry significantly younger or older spouses will enjoy longer and shorter lives respectively. Again, while the data pattern according to the prediction, it is not difficult to think of alternative explanations. For example, as the authors note, a younger partner may suffer health problems as a result of having to take care of her older spouse and/or grief at his death.
Another Langer study tested this “mind-set matters” hypothesis in a different arena. A group of hotel workers were told that their cleaning work constitutes sufficiently good exercise to meet national guidelines for an “active lifestyle” and consequently began to perceive themselves as more fit and healthy. Apparently as a result, this experimental group showed lower blood pressure, weight and BMI than a matched control group of cleaners who were not given this information. Again, though, it is not difficult to think of alternative explanations for this finding. Perhaps, for example, although their designated workload did not change, the group who had been told that cleaning constitutes exercise were inspired to clean more vigorously (perhaps unconsciously).
Nevertheless, this study is more convincing than the ageing studies discussed above because it uses an experimental rather than correlational design: The experimenters perform an intervention that is hypothesized to cause a change in some outcome measure (e.g., blood pressure, age at death), rather than simply trying to predict the outcome measure using a range of often-confounded variables (e.g., age at marriage, or whether the respondent wears a uniform to work).
It is good news, then that, according to the New York Times story, Langer plans to run a new, more tightly controlled version of her turning-back-the-clock experiment. Women with breast cancer will live for a week in a resort that has been rolled back to 2003, before any had received a diagnosis. This time there will two control groups: one will attend a support group but not “travel back” to 2003, the other will receive no intervention at all. The main outcome measure is one with which nobody could quibble: the size of the tumor.
Thus while the current evidence for Langer’s mind-set matters hypothesis is only suggestive, let us hope for the sake of these—and millions of other—cancer sufferers that she is right, and that this trial will show that it really is possible to improve our physical health, at least in some small way, by using the power of the brain to turn back time.