The holidays are the perfect time to step back and ponder the generation gap. How can people born forty years before you (or forty years after you) seem like they come from another world? If you're looking for answers, I highly recommend John Ray's remarkable piece on "The Old-Fashioned Personality" (1990. Human Relations 43). In this very Hansonian article, Ray takes the massive psychological literature on the F-scale - usually seen as a measure of fascist tendencies - and radically reinterprets it. People who score high on this test are not fascists, or even "right-wing authoritarians"; instead, they simply have old-fashioned personalities.
Ray begins by explaining that the F-scale
...does not predict authoritarian behavior and it is a poor predictor of political Rightism. In general population samples, many Leftist voters get high scores on it.
Although this is a considerable record of failure, it only tells part of the story. The other side is of course the fact that vast numbers of articles have been published wherein the F scale has been shown to have significant relationships with other variables. The F scale may not measure what it purports to measure but it does measure something that seems to have an effect on many other variables. But what could this be? (references omitted)
Ray then plays intellectual detective, amassing a series of clues:
Pflaum (1964) showed that a parallel form of the 'F' scale could be produced from collections of myths and superstitions that had been popular in the 1920's. Now this is very strong data indeed... The correlations Pflaum found, however, were so high that they enabled claims that a parallel form of the 'F' scale had been found. Pflaum has therefore made an explicit discovery about what the F scale consists of. It is a collection of old-fashioned myths and superstitions or statements that strongly resemble them... [T]he attitudes expressed in the 'F' scale were old-fashioned even when the 'F' scale was compiled. How much more old-fashioned they must be today! That they are is also shown by the fact that the F scale always seems to correlate with age...
Another piece of work which supports this interpretation of the F scale is the finding by Alwin (1988) to the effect that the ideals for child behavior in the U.S.A. have changed a lot since the 1920's. In the 20's conformity and obedience to authority were what was expected of children. In present times, however, this is replaced by values directed toward the child being more autonomous. So what do we find in the F scale? About a third of the items stress the importance of authority in general and several specifically advocate obedience to authority by young people -- exactly what we would expect of a scale embodying 1920's values.
In short, a high 'F' scorer is not a Fascist but rather someone who is still lost in the culture of the pre-war era. (emphasis mine)
When your elderly relatives shock you with their old-fashioned ways, though, Ray offers some food for thought: Old-fashioned words may offend young ears, but old-fashioned behavior has more to recommend it. Neat example:
[P]redictors of avowed racial dislikes may tell us nothing about the predictors of actual racism or racist behavior... One study that may reflect this is by Stephan & Rosenfield (1978). As we have seen, "authoritarian" attitudes generally predict anti-black attitudes. Stephan & Rosenfield (1978), however, found that schoolchildren who had been subjected to "authoritarian" child-rearing practices tended to show... the greatest increases in inter-ethnic contact after a desegregation program came into force... It is so contrary to expectation that even the authors of the study seemed not to notice the sign of the correlation. When I wrote to one of them about it, he acknowledged the anomaly but could offer no explanation for it. We have however noticed some tendency in the studies so far reviewed for old-fashioned people to be "nicer" towards others in various ways. Could it be that this "niceness" was a stronger determinant of actions towards minorities than was the evaluative judgments held concerning those minorities?(references omitted)
The lesson, though it mildly pains me to admit it: It's easy to get the wrong idea about your elders while they talk over turkey. If you invisibly followed them through the course of their lives, you would probably think much better of them.
P.S. And don't forget the great social rule: When in doubt, smile and nod!