This is why it's so difficult to change old people's minds

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People over 50 can find it hard to change their thinking. (Getty Images)

Many older people have entrenched ideas on certain subjects – now a study has thrown light on why it can be so difficult to get them to change their minds.

Scientists have evaluated how people were able to change their opinions following decades of a deep-rooted viewpoint.

To achieve this, they used research from around the time of the 1989 uprising against communist rule in Romania, before which 'truth' came from a single TV channel controlled by an authoritarian government.

They found that younger generations shifted the way they evaluated truth – a process known as epistemic thinking – while older people struggled.

There was a greater occurrence of sticking to one rigid viewpoint among those who had experienced the transition to democracy in middle-age rather than at an earlier period of life, the researchers said.

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The vast majority of those 75 or older tended to read or listen to the news and instantly take it as truth, "possibly because for most of their lives, they had only one TV program to watch, and all books, news, movies and music were under communist censorship," said co-author Raluca Furdui, a master's student at Romania's West University of Timisoara.

"They learned to respect the authority of the teachers in schools, and some never even had the chance to go to high school."

"In contrast,” Furdui added, "we, the youngest generation in our study – currently between 18 and 30 – were challenged by our teachers to express our opinions, think critically and check information."

Epistemic thinking goes from absolutist thinking, the belief that only one claim can be right, to multiplist thinking, the belief that more than one claim could be right and it is just a matter of opinion.

Evaluativist thinking suggests that statements can be evaluated in terms of both logic and evidence.

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The researchers found that evaluativism was most common among the youngest generation, which also had the highest education levels.

They concluded that the developmental window for epistemic thinking is open during the first 25 years of life. After this it slowly closes, and a person's epistemic thinking style will change little later in adulthood.

Patricia Greenfield, a UCLA distinguished professor of psychology and co-author of the study, said" "We found that the social environment produced by a combination of democracy and a market economy more frequently led people to abandon the assumption that there is one right answer and to evaluate multiple possibilities – when one was born into this environment or when it was experienced in the first 25 years of life.

"We found that there is indeed a sensitive developmental period for acquiring cultural ways of thinking."

Lead author Amalia Ionescu, a doctoral student in psychology at UCLA, said: "Whether we are monitoring various news sources or scrolling through a busy Twitter feed, we are constantly encountering diverse viewpoints about topics ranging from politics to films.

"Some of these topics carry infinitely more weight than others, but ultimately we are using the same sort of mechanism when deciding how to make sense of contrasting viewpoints."

In the US, developmental psychology research has shown that children typically think in absolutist terms, then progress to multiplist thinking and sometimes, particularly with a relatively high level of education and exposure to various experiences and points of view, emerge as evaluativist adults.

The researchers focused on Romania, which in the late 1940s became communist and aligned itself with the Soviet Union.

Beginning in 1965, under the authoritarian leadership of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania became increasingly repressive and isolated. After Ceausescu was overthrown in 1989, the country quickly moved toward democracy, embraced a market economy and joined the European Union.

Today, Romanians have a developing education system and open access to technology, social media, consumer goods and travel.

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