Another important question to ask is whether implicit negative stereotypes of aging influence the cognitive functioning of older adults. This possibility is raised in the context of widely cited social psychological research on stereotype threat. Claude Steele and colleagues have conducted a number of studies suggesting that stigmatized groups such as African Americans and women are vulnerable to stereotype threat (Spencer et al., 1999; Steele, 1997; Steele & Aronson, 1995). Stereotype threat is an evoked fear of being judged in accordance with a negative stereotype about a group to which you belong. For example, if you are a member of a stigmatized group such as African Americans, you are vulnerable to cues in your environment that activate stereotype threat about academic ability. In turn, you may perform more poorly on a task associated with that stereotype irrespective of high competence in academic settings.
In a seminal study, African Americans at Stanford University were divided into two groups. Both groups scored very high on their SAT verbal scores. However, one group was told that they were going to take a test that was highly diagnostic of their verbal ability. The other group did not receive this very evaluative instruction. When scores were compared on verbal tests for both groups, despite the fact that all individuals were highly verbal, the group that received the diagnostic instructions performed more poorly. Caucasians in the diagnostic evaluation group did not differ from Caucasians in the nondiagnostic group. However, they did outperform African Americans in the diagnostic condition. Importantly, there were no differences between African Americans and Caucasians in the nondiagnostic group. Why? Steele argues that the performance of African Americans in the diagnostic condition suffered because they felt threatened by the negative stereotype that African Americans perform poorly on academic ability tests. This same type of effect was found when women were told that a test evaluated their mathematical competency. In this case, women are the stigmatized group because of negative stereotypes suggesting that women are less capable at math than men.
Recently, substantial attention has focused on understanding the harmful effects of negative aging stereotypes on memory performance in older adults (Andreoletti & Lachman, 2004; Chasteen, Bhattacharyya, Horhota, Tam, & Hasher, 2005; Hess, Auman, Colcombe, & Rahhal, 2003; Levy, 1996; Rahall et al., 2001; Stein, Blanchard-Fields, & Hertzog, 2002). In other words, do older adults belong to a stigmatized group that is vulnerable to stereotype threat? Some researchers have suggested that negative stereotypes do adversely affect older adults’ cognitive functioning and may contribute to our perception of age-related decline in cognitive functioning (see Chapter 6). The initial studies examining this possibility used techniques similar to our discussion of stereotype activation: assessing implicit stereotyping.
Social Cognition 301