Activation of Stereotypes
From the preceding review of research we know that stereotypes of older adults exist in the form of personality traits and perceptions of competence. They also influence our judgments about how capable older adults will be in memory-demanding situations. However, it is not enough to know that the stereotypes exist; we need to know under what conditions they are activated, and if activated, how they affect our behavior and social judgments. For example, why do negative stereotypes of older adults tend to influence our behaviors (e. g., talking down to older adults as if they were children) and attitudes (Hummert, 1999)? Considerable work focuses on stereotype activation as a relatively unconscious and automatic process that guides our behavior and social judgments (Bargh, 1997; Kunda & Spencer, 2003).
Social psychologists suggest that the reason stereotypes are automatically activated is that they become overlearned and thus are spontaneously activated when we encounter a member or members of a stereotyped group, such as African Americans (Greenwald et al., 1998; Kunda et al., 2002; Wheeler & Petty, 2001). The activation of strong stereotypes, called implicit stereotyping, is not only automatic but also unconscious. Thus it is more likely that they will influence our behavior without our being aware of it. The effects of such implicit stereotyping are illustrated in a clever study conducted by John Bargh and colleagues (Bargh et al., 1996). They demonstrated that if you subliminally (outside of conscious awareness) prime young people with the image of an elderly person, the young people’s actual behavior is influenced in an age-related manner. In this case, the implicitly primed young adults walked down the hall more slowly after the experiment than did young adults who were not primed with the elderly image. This is a powerful demonstration of how our unconscious stereotypes of aging can guide our behavior.
Measuring implicit aging stereotyping is a challenge because by definition it is inaccessible. However, recent research using a clever technique called the Age Attitude IAT (Implicit Attitudes Test; Hummert et al., 2002) has overcome this challenge. In this test, individuals categorize photographs of faces by indicating as fast as they can whether the photo is a younger or older person. They are asked to press a button with their right hand to indicate young and with their left hand to indicate old. Then they categorize other photographs as pleasant or unpleasant with the right hand indicating pleasant and the left hand indicating unpleasant. Next is the two-part test of implicit aging stereotypes. Part one consists of a combination of the young-old and pleasant-unpleasant categorization task using the same hands as just indicated. In this test, the right hand is associated with both young and pleasant, whereas the left hand is associated with both old and unpleasant. The second part reverses the hands for young-old. Now the right hand is associated with old and the left hand is associated with young. The right hand is still associated with pleasant, and the left hand with unpleasant. The logic is this: If you have a negative stereotype regarding aging, you will be much slower in your response during the second test. In other words, it becomes difficult to use your right hand to indicate old because it is also associated with pleasant. This difficulty slows your response down.
Using this methodology Hummert and colleagues (2002) found that people of all ages were faster to respond to young-pleasant and old-unpleasant t rials than to old-pleasant and young-unpleasant trials. Furthermore, all individuals had implicit age attitudes that strongly favored the young over the old. If you would like to experiment with this test, it is on the Internet. See the reference at the end of this chapter for the Book Companion Website, where you will find the URL for this test. These experiments and others (Levy, 2003) demonstrate that the activation of our negative stereotypes about aging affects our behavior without us being aware of it.
Implicit stereotyping is illustrated in many different domains of our behavior toward others
as well. For example, in many situations nursing staff or younger adults in general are trying to instruct or communicate with older adults, as seen in the photo. Much evidence suggests that younger people engage in patronizing talk toward older adults in these situations (Hummert, 1999; Kemper, 2001). Patronizing talk is when you slow your speech, use childlike vocabulary, dramatically articulate your words, speak with a demeaning emotional tone (e. g., overbearing or overly familiar), and engage in superficial conversation. It is very similar to the way adults engage in baby talk to very young children. Research shows that negative age stereotypes are a primary cause for this behavior (Hummert et al., 1998; Kemper et al.,
1998) . Patronizing talk can cause social alienation and damaging effects on older adults’ self-esteem (Hummert, 1999). Interestingly, when people who are likely to engage in patronizing talk to older adults evaluate it in others, they themselves describe it as disrespectful and demeaning (Ryan et al., 1994).
Why is this so? Again, implicit stereotyping may be the answer. When communicating to others, we try to accommodate to our audience so they will understand what we are trying to say. In this case, when communicating to an older adult, negative stereotypes of older adults as less competent, less able to hear, and having poorer memories may be activated and unconsciously and inadvertently result in an inaccurate assessment of how to accommodate our speech (Hummert, 1999; Ryan et al., 1994).
However, changing our speech to accommodate older adults can also have beneficial effects (Gould et al., 2002; Kemper, 2001; McGuire et al., 2000). If you adjust your speech when talking to older adults by using repetitions, including more elaborations, and speaking with less complexity, older adults are shown to have less comprehension failures (Kemper, 2001). The trick is to avoid high pitch, very slow speaking rates, and exaggerated tone. These latter characteristics are what older adults see as insulting and result in disenfranchising older adults from full participation in a conversational interaction.
© Frank Siteman / PhotoEdit
Nursing home staff must be careful not to communicate with older adult residents as if they are childlike.