LEARNING OBJECTIVES

• How does the content of stereotypes about aging differ across adulthood?

• How do younger and older adults perceive the competence of the elderly?

• How do negative stereotypes about aging unconsciously guide our behavior?

M

ark, a 70-year-old man, was getting ready to go home from a poker game at his friend’s house. However, he could not find his keys. Down the street, Guy, a 20-year-old college student, was ready to go home from a party at his friend’s house, and he also could not find his keys. Each of their respective friends at the two social events had very different perceptions
of Mark and Guy. Mark’s friends started to worry whether Mark was becoming senile, speculating that it might be all downhill from now on. They wondered whether this was serious enough to call the doctor. However, Guy’s friends attributed Guy’s forgetfulness to being busy, under a lot of stress, and nervous about his upcoming date.

What accounts for these very different expla­nations of losing one’s keys for Mark and Guy? An explanation for the attributions Mark’s friends made involves the negative stereotype of aging that older adults are slow-thinking and incompetent. Negative stereotypes of aging are extremely perva­sive throughout our culture. Just peruse your local greeting card store and you will find humorous birthday cards capitalizing on our negative expecta­tions about aging. For example, jokes run amuck about the older adult who keeps losing his or her memory. For a notorious example, see the cartoon depicting the grandchildren reveling in their grand­father’s loss of memory so they can obtain extra allowance. This captures all our negative stereotypes about memory and aging.

Fortunately, positive expectations about aging coexist with the negative ones (Hummert, 1999; Kite & Wagner, 2002). On the one hand, older adults are seen as grouchy, forgetful, and losing physical stamina and sexual abilities. Yet, on the other hand, older adults are seen as wise, generous, and responsible. The important question research­ers ask is what effect stereotypes have on our social judgments and our behavior toward others, such as those in Mark’s situation.