Stereotypes are a special type of social knowledge structure or social belief. They represent socially shared beliefs about characteristics and behaviors of a particular social group. We all have stereotypes of groups of individuals and beliefs about how they will act in certain situations, such as “Older adults will be more rigid in their point of view” or “Older adults will talk on and on about their past.” These beliefs affect how we interpret new information (Cuddy & Fiske, 2002). In other words, we use them to help us

process information when we are engaged in social interactions. Just as with the literature on impression formation discussed earlier, we use our stereotypes to size up people when we first meet them. It helps us understand why they behave the way they do and guides us in our behavior toward other peo­ple. Remember that stereotypes are not inherently negative in their effect. However, too often they are applied in ways that underestimate the potential of the person we are observing. This will become more evident as we explore age-related stereotypes.

Much research has examined adult developmental changes in the content and structure of stereotypes (e. g., Hummert, 1999; Kite & Wagner, 2002). From a developmental perspective we would ask if there are changes in the nature and strength of our stereo­types, as we grow older. However, as you can see in Table 8.1, Hummert (1999) has found that older and younger adults hold quite similar age stereotypes. Such stereotypes include clusters of cognitive, per­sonality, and general physical traits. When asked to generate and sort a list of traits associated with the category older person, young, middle-aged, and older adults shared the same categories of aging, including golden-ager, John Wayne conservative, perfect grand­parent, shrew/curmudgeon, recluse, despondent,

Many cartoons and greeting cards depict our fear of memory loss as we grow older.

and severely impaired (Hummert, 1999). Note from Table 8.1 that there are as many positive stereotypes for older adults as there are negative stereotypes. Recent research also shows that African Americans have similar stereotypes (Adams & Hummert, 2004). Overall, the consensus seems to be growing that adults of all ages have access to multiple stereotypes of older adults (Cuddy & Fiske, 2002; Kite & Wagner, 2002; Matheson et al., 2000).

Yet there are also age differences in how we perceive older adults. The consensus on stereotype categories across age groups just depicted is accom­panied by developmental changes in the complexity of age stereotype beliefs. For example, Heckhausen, Dixon, and Baltes (1989) have shown that older adults identify a greater number of desirable and undesirable traits that characterize people as they develop across the life span. They also found that older adults perceive a greater potential for change in these characteristics in older age. Other studies have shown that older adults identify more categories that fit under the superordinate category “older adult” than do younger and middle-aged adults (Brewer & Lui, 1984; Heckhausen et al., 1989; Hummert et al.,

1994) . For example, as can be seen in Table 8.1, “golden-ager” only came up as a category for “older adults” when elderly people were included in the study (Hummert et al., 1994). Overall, these find­ings suggest that as we grow older, our ideas and age stereotypes become more elaborate and rich as we integrate our life experiences into our beliefs about aging (Baltes et al., 1999b; O’Brien & Hummert,

2006) .

Are there age differences in how negatively or positively one views older adults? One recent study showed that older adults have a more positive view of aging in comparison to younger adults (Wentura & Brandstadter, 2003). However, an experimental study that more directly examined when stereo­types are activated suggested that younger adults’ perceptions of older adults may be changing. For example, both younger and older adults displayed a positive bias toward older adults (Chasteen et al.; Park, 2002). In other words, when presented with the concept of “old,” they did not show any signs of ageism.