What does science tell us about the right age for a leader? U.S. voters have been struggling with this question since Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders entered the pool of presidential candidates at the ages of 77 and 76. Either would surpass 72-year-old Donald Trump’s record as the oldest president to be elected to a first term.
These numbers have sent several pundits running for the actuarial tables, only to find that while average life expectancy at birth for American males is around 78 and a half, the numbers that apply to Sanders and Biden are conditional probabilities. Given that they’ve already reached their late 70s, their odds are now good for getting into their late 80s.
In the Washington Post, Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld argued that there’s nothing wrong with a 70-something leader. To back this, he cited numerous examples of energetic leaders in their eighth and ninth decades.
Individuals have followed leaders since the dawn of humanity – or more likely, since long before: Many social animals, such as elephants, follow leaders, said Mark van Vugt, an evolutionary psychologist and author of the book “Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership.” When it comes to leadership, elephants pick the oldest female, he said, which works to the whole herd’s advantage because elephants really do depend on their memories, and older elephants have more accumulated useful knowledge, such as the location of the best migration paths and good watering holes.
For people, the long-term pattern is similar, but a little more complex, said van Vugt. In what he calls small-scale societies – what people lived in for most of human existence – people followed the guidance of elders in their 60s and 70s in times of stability and young men in times of war. The older people had experience and skill in solving conflicts, and back before Twitter, they had more useful social contacts than younger people did.
Is there any rationality to people’s preference for older leaders in some circumstances and younger ones in others? It might have been a pretty good heuristic in small hunter-gatherer groups. But today, a better guide would be candidates’ stands on policy issues. If the oldest candidate has the best ideas to navigate a dynamic moment in the nation’s evolution, then great – that candidate is the best choice, regardless of stereotypes about age.
Humans are also particularly ill-adapted to television and video, which give us the illusion that we know potential leaders personally, the way our ancestors did in those small-scale societies. People who watch more television are more likely to make their political choices based on appearance, including whether the person looks old or young. Those who see less footage focus less on the looks of a candidate and more on the policy.
There is evidence the average person loses some mental capacities by 70 or so, most of this amounting to loss in speed; they can still do everything younger people can do, but a little slower. That kind of speed may not matter much outside the heat of battle. And a factoid about “the average person” doesn’t mean any given individual is any less sharp at 77 than at 50. So if science has anything to tell us about age and leadership, it’s that we should not to let it distract us from things that matter – such as policy.