Donald Sterling, Bigot or Adolescent?

Everyone is aware of Donald Sterling’s taped comments criticizing a female friend for associating with black people. This resulted in his loss of control of the Los Angeles Clippers professional basketball team.

I don’t know if Donald Sterling is a bigot, but his comments have resulted in outrage, and this is understandable considering the climate of racial prejudice that still exists in our country.

An article in the Tampa Bay Times on May 16, 2014 caught my eye. It reported on another 80+ year-old man who refused to apologize for calling President Barack Obama the N-word. This fellow is the police commissioner in a small New Hampshire town. He ran unopposed for election to the police commission and secured another three-year term on March 11, 2014. Associated Press, “N-word sparks calls to resign,” Tampa Bay Times, May 16, 2014. He resigned on May 19.

These two 80+-year-old men are outspoken, to say the least. And there is no place for this kind of language in our society today. Are they also prejudiced bigots? Could be. But I learned a long time ago that our best estimate of a person’s character is through his or her behavior and not just what they say, especially if they say it in private. If these two men’s behavior is consistent with their recent comments, then the question is answered.

Because of their ages, however, I have to wonder about impulsivity and the frontal lobes of the brain. The frontal lobes control impulsivity and hyperactivity. They also take their time in maturing, and in fact males are sometimes well into their 20s before maturation of the frontal lobes is complete. There’s an old adage in neuropsychology that the frontal lobes are “last in and the first out.” Yes, last to establish reliable functioning in the brain, and, with old age, the first to go.

Lesions to the prefrontal cortex result in inordinate impulsiveness, irritability, hyperactivity, and poor control of instincts. Persons who suffer these lesions have reduced ability to inhibit their speech and behavior. All of this boils down to less self-control –– and self-control has gained new stature as a psychological variable. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister, Professor Emeritus at FloridaStateUniversity, has researched the area of self-control. Children with high degrees of self-control have better grades in school, are healthier, and better adjusted emotionally. They also have better social lives and less antisocial behavior.

Hmm. Antisocial behavior.

Baumeister believes that electronic games may actually improve self-control because the child must be patient in following clues and earning rewards. That remains to be seen, but I doubt that electronic gaming will be prescribed for impulsive 80+-year-olds in the near future.

We are accustomed to the slow maturation of the frontal lobes in children, and for this reason we make allowances for 16- and even 18-year-old youngsters when it comes to driving accidents, and even criminal acts. We still hold these individuals responsible, but give them a little more latitude. We also tend to protect their privacy if they are under age. Being under age really just means possessing a less than fully-mature brain.

But what about the other end of the continuum? What about the declining effectiveness of the frontal lobes with age? Do we give older folks a break when it comes to impulsive words or behavior, or do we assume they should know better, since they’ve been around awhile? Studies of the brain show no decline in wisdom with age, and in fact older persons sometimes are better at viewing the big picture. But the research also shows that they have greater difficulty with short-term memory and attention span.

Do we protect the privacy of these older individuals just as we do with adolescents?

Of course, these two men may be bigoted and the slow deterioration of the frontal lobes may have no bearing on their words or behavior. Another possibility is a generational and cultural one. Because of technology and the Internet, there is more transparency and the gap between public and private words and actions has narrowed. People in their 80s may not be aware of this cultural change.

Certainly, if the above verbal behaviors lead these two men to some type of legal proceeding, I would recommend that their lawyers consider neuropsychological studies to determine if deterioration has taken place. An MRI and neuropsychological testing could give some answers in regard to prefrontal deterioration leading to impulsivity, irritability and poor control of instincts.

To raise the question of impulsivity with these two men does not in any way excuse the unacceptable content of their comments, public or private. It does use these incidents to raise our consciousness about the youth-old-age continuum, and especially the not so private “senior moments” of seniors.

 

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