Are Stereotypes of Aging Associated with Lower Cognitive Performance?
A major controversial issue in the cognitive aging literature is whether living in a society that equates old age with memory decline, senility, and dependency produces what Langer (1989) calls a "premature cognitive commitment" early in life. As children we acquire ideas of what it means to be old, usually negative, and these stereotypes guide and influence our behavior later in life. Thus, the question is the degree to which negative societal beliefs, attitudes, and expectations determine the cognitive decline we observe in older adults.
When Levy and Langer (1994) compared memory performance and attitudes on aging of Chinese older adults, hearing American older adults, and deaf American older adults, they found that the Chinese older adults outperformed both groups of American older adults on several memory tasks.
In addition, the deaf American older adults outperformed their hearing American counterparts. Attitudes on aging held by the different cultures were related to memory performance (Chinese had more positive attitudes, whereas Americans had more negative attitudes). The conclusion drawn is that negative stereotypes in American culture accounted for this difference.
However, the results are not definitive, because this is a correlational study. In other words, does enhanced memory performance lead to more positive attitudes, or do positive attitudes lead to enhanced memory performance? Are there educational differences between the two cultural groups? Are the memory tests really the same given that they had to be translated into Chinese?
To further test this notion,
Levy (1996) subliminally primed younger and older adults with negative stereotypes of an older adult (e. g., the word senile) or positive stereotypes (e. g., the word wise). She found that when older adults were primed with negative aging stereotypes, their performance was worse on memory tests than that of older adults primed with positive stereotypes. To further bolster this stereotype effect, Stein, Blanchard-Fields, and Hertzog (2002) tried to replicate this finding. Importantly they did find that negative stereotypes adversely affected older adults’ memory, but only for those individuals who were unaware of the subliminal presentation of negative stereotypes. This emphasizes how powerful unconscious activation of stereotypes can be in influencing our behavior.
It is intriguing and intuitive to believe that a self-fulfilling prophecy operates with respect to older adults’ memory performance. If society portrays older adults as declining in cognitive capacity and you are socialized to believe so at a very young age, then it makes sense that this will influence your memory performance as an older adult. However, as we observed in Chapter 6, there are other processes related to physiological decline (e. g., speed of processing) that substantially account for declines in memory performance. All in all, negative stereotypes of aging exist. They may indeed have an effect on cognitive performance, although they may not account for all of it. Thus, although you may not be able to eliminate decline in performance, interventions in improving your attitudes and outlook on aging do have the potential to improve the quality of performance relative to your own level of functioning.
Becca Levy (1996) conducted the initial study in this area, and it caused some controversy. Let us examine this initial research in the Current Controversies feature. What do you think?
302 CHAPTER 8
More recently additional studies have confirmed the damaging effects of negative aging stereotypes on memory (Hess, Hinson, & Statham, 2004; Levy & Leifheit-Limson, 2009). For example, Rahhal,
Hasher, and Colcombe (2001) examined the effect of experimental instructions on older adults’ memory performance. If older adults were told they were about to take a memory test, they performed more poorly than younger adults. However, when they were told the task emphasized learning about new information, older adults performed as well as younger adults. Hess, Auman, Colcombe, and Rahhal (2003) also found support for the influence of stereotype threat on older adults’ memory. Younger and older adults read two newspaper – styled reports that discussed either research findings indicating that older adults’ memory is worse than that of younger adults, or positive research findings indicating memory loss in older adulthood is not inevitable and can be controlled to some extent. The researchers found support for the influence of stereotype threat; older adults who read the negative report performed more poorly on memory tasks than did older adults who read the positive report. Interestingly, this manipulation had no effect on younger adults. This suggests that self-relevance is important in understanding the effect of aging stereotypes. Younger adults were not affected because the stereotypes did not relate to their self-identity (Levy, 2003).
An important point about the Hess et al. (2003) study needs to be noted. The negative effect of stereotype threat on older adults was most evident in those older adults who put a lot of investment in memory competence. Older adults who did not worry about this were not as adversely affected by the negative stereotypes of an aging mind. As Zebrowitz (2003) suggests, maybe older adults can defend against negative aging stereotypes through inoculation, that is, by not identifying with the category “elderly.” Instead, they can embrace the positive aspects of themselves and apply strategies to compensate for any decline, thus fending off the self-fulfilling prophecy of “incompetent behavior” as dictated by the negative aging stereotypes. Finally, education may act as a buffer to the influence of stereotypes. Older adults with high education were not affected by stereotypes on a memory task, whereas individuals with lower amounts of education were affected by stereotype manipulations (Andreoletti & Lachman, 2004).
There is also evidence that middle-aged adults are susceptible to negative age stereotypes (O’Brien & Hummert, 2006). Middle-aged adults who identified with older adulthood showed poorer memory performance if they were told that their performance would be compared with other older adults. Middle-aged adults with more youthful identities did not show differences in memory performance regardless of whether they were told they would be compared to younger or older individuals.
Although the lion’s share of the research in this area has focused on the detrimental effects of stereotypes, some evidence also exists for the beneficial effects of positive stereotypes on older adults’ cognitive performance (Hess et al., 2004; Levy, 2003; Stein et al., 2002).
The influence of stereotypes on performance is not restricted only to memory. In a recent study, Levy and Leifheit-Limson (2009) found that subliminally inducing physical negative aging stereotypes had a harmful effect on older adults’ balance performance. In contrast, presenting older adults with positive physical aging stereotypes resulted in better balance performance. Levy and colleagues
(2000) found that older adults exposed to negative aging stereotypes showed a heightened cardiovascular response to a stressful situation compared to older adults exposed to positive aging stereotypes. Levy argues that negative aging stereotypes can be viewed as direct stressors. Positive aging stereotypes, in contrast, could potentially have the ability to reduce cardiovascular stress. Finally, Levy, Slade, and Kasl (2002) found in a longitudinal study that older adults who maintained positive perceptions of themselves as aging individuals tended to be healthier over time than those who held a negative self-perception of aging. Thus it is important to recognize the role of positive stereotypes on older adults. Remember, however, that this is correlational data. It does not tell us whether positive stereotypes cause people to be healthy across their adult life span. Nevertheless, overall, the findings discussed here demonstrate how pervasive and powerful stereotypes can be on our behavior.
1. Describe positive and negative age-related stereotypes.
2. What is implicit stereotyping?
3. What is stereotype threat?
4. What are the ways the positive and negative aging stereotypes influence older adults’ behavior?