The Power of Positive Thinking

Presents a study which suggests that such negative portrayals of aging may actually help bring about the memory problems of aging. Methodology of the study; Result of the study; Words with negative and positive connotations about aging; Views on negative stereotypes.

By Jessica Rothchild, published May 1, 1997 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

At one time or another nearly everyone over the age of 30 has recieved a birthday card joking about declining memory or other common ailments of old age. Now a study suggest that such negative portrayals of aging may actually help bring about the memory problems they lampoon.

In one part of the study Harvard University researcher Bacca Levy, Ph.D., asked volunteers aged 60 or over to press either the up or down arrow on a keyboard each time a word was flashed on a computer monitor. Some participants were shown words with negative connotations about aging, such as senile and incompetent, while other folks saw terms with more positive associations, such as wise or alert.

Each word was visible for such a brief period of time—anywhere from a tenth to a twentieth of a second—that the participants couldn't actually read them. Even so, subjects shown words that reinforced negative views of the erderly later performed more poorly on memory tests than folks who saw the positive words, Levy reports in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. So negative stereotypes may become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially if we're not conscious that we've been exposed to them. "This shows how insidious our views of aging are," Levy says. Maybe it's no coincidence that in an earlier cross-cultural study Levy found that views of aging are particularly positive in China—where elders far outperform their American counterparts on memory tests.