Who cares? The crime victim was old anyway!
Ageism is one of those things we rarely discuss until we reach a certain age. When we see crimes whose victims are elderly, there is an assumption that the public reaction would be anger and a rush to protect or compensate the victim. It’s often true, but remember what assuming does? In truth, prejudice against older people has been widely reported to be one of the most widely accepted forms of prejudice in society.
Researchers in the UK and Canada explored the reactions of UK community members and university students when harm was done to either an older person or a younger person. They conducted three studies and here is what they report finding:
In Study 1, 53 community members (53% male, average age slightly over 30 years) read a news story of an auto accident caused by a drunk driver. In one version of the news story, the victim was 74 years old and seriously injured. In the other version, the victim was 18 years old and seriously injured. There were no differences between the two stories, other than the victims age. The research participants were asked to rate how unjust the accident was and how much time the driver should be sentenced in prison for the accident.
Participants judged the driver who hurt the young person more harshly than the driver that injured the older person. The injustice against the young victim was viewed as worse, and the punishment meted out was greater if the victim was young.
In Study 2, 119 university staff and students (45% female, average age almost 27 years) read another story describing an auto accident. In this story, a male pedestrian was struck in a crosswalk. The male victim was either 14 years old or 84 years old. The other difference in Study 2 was that in one scenario, the driver was using a cell phone at the time of the accident and in the other, the victim did not observe the stop sign at the crossing and was using a cell phone when hit. Thus, the variables examined were age of victim (young versus old) and contributory negligence of the victim (innocent versus non-innocent victim). Participants were asked to rate the extent to which the driver should be punished and the level of victim responsibility.
Participants who learned the victim was innocent, punished the driver less when the victim was older (versus younger), confirming the earlier study. When the victim was not innocent, age did not affect judgments of punishment. [We are led to wonder whether the participants were impressed that an 84 year old could walk and use a cell phone at the same time. How youthful! At least the researchers didn’t have the person sending text messages...]
In Study 3, 120 participants “approached at various locations on the University of Essex campus” (48% male, average age 23 years) were told about planned hospital budget cuts. Participants were asked to rank order the departments which they believed should receive the most cuts to the least cuts. The following departments were included: gastroenterology, geriatrics, neurology, oncology, opthalmology, otolaryngology, pediatrics, and psychiatry. Each department’s main function was described in plain language–for example, opthalmology was described as being for “eye/vision care”. The departments the researchers were especially interested in were the pediatric and geriatric departments.
Participants were also asked to rank several groups of people on a “feelings thermometer” question–among them, farmers, Canadians, mechanics, coffee drinkers, and elderly people. Finally, they read a scenario about a medical accident occurring to either a 12 year old girl or an 82 year old woman. In the medical accident, a technician accidentally administered an “intense blast of radiation to a patient’s unprotected shoulder”. While the patient survived, she experienced “excruciating pain” and “was left with gaping lesions on her upper body”. The participants were asked how unjust they thought this situation was and how much they wanted to punish the technician.
As predicted by earlier experiments, participants recommended more budget cuts for the geriatrics department than for the pediatrics department. The suffering of the older victim was seen as less terrible than the suffering of the younger victim, and those reading the scenario of the younger victim thought the technician should be punished more severely. Finally, the more negative the feelings thermometer rating of “elderly people”, the greater the gap between their appraisal of the older victim being injured versus the younger (with the younger person’s injury being a greater offense).
The researchers say that this is simply another example of how devalued groups (like minorities, those different than us, and, in this case the elderly) are seen as less worthy of compensation, protection and justice (in the form of equal punishment to the perpetrator).
“To the extent that a victim’s age serves as an extralegal factor in punitive judgments, people may show more leniency toward an offender if the victim was older versus younger. Here, an elderly victim may become secondarily victimized if the harm doer receives less punishment than s/he would have had the victim been younger.”
These results are pretty straightforward for the litigator. If the case involves injuries to an older person, you need to use the same strategies we’ve recommended for other biases. In brief, bring the bias to their attention, ask jurors to look inside themselves at the very best version of themselves possible, and help jurors to see your client as “like” them. When you do these things, bias against the elderly is mitigated as much as you can.
For those accused of injuring an elderly person, the line needs to be walked carefully. Know that the jury is likely to be unconsciously relieved that the victim wasn’t a young person, but don’t emphasize it. Allow it to be an unconscious judgment, and express regret that anyone at all was injured.
Callan, M., Dawtry, R., & Olson, J. (2012). Justice motive effects in ageism: The effects of a victim’s age on observer perceptions of injustice and punishment judgments Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (6), 1343-1349 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.07.003
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