The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues

Sound Science, Sound Policy

Old Age and Stereotypes

New research shows that the stereotype threat affects the elderly.

Posted Feb 13, 2015

By Ruth A. Lamont

As a postgraduate researcher looking at age stereotypes I often visit day centres and community groups, asking people over 65 to help with my research. With only chocolates and sweets as an incentive, I sometimes have to practice the art of persuasion! To my surprise I have found that in just approaching older adults for their assistance, I was already confirming some of my hypotheses. One individual said something along the lines of ‘Oh no, I’m far too old for that sort of thing, you would be much better asking one of the young staff, they’ll be able to do it’. Even those that did kindly help sometimes questioned why a ‘young thing’ like myself would want to research old people.

Even before being given a test, some of the people I approached appeared to feel inadequate because of their age. As an experimental social psychologist, what felt alarming was how readily some older people adopted negative self-perceptions, and that this already seemed largely beyond my control.

We all spend a life-time internalising stereotypes of ageing until we reach old age ourselves and realise we are the targets of these stereotypes. Just the presence of a younger person may make these stereotypes salient. My research explores the consequences of stereotypes that suggest competence declines with age.

A recent review and meta-analysis that I conducted with Hannah Swift and Dominic Abrams shows that stereotypes of ageing can directly affect older adults’ behaviour (see Lamont, Swift & Abrams, 2015). We statistically analysed international evidence from 37 studies, both published and unpublished, to conclude that older adults’ memory and cognitive performance is negatively affected in situations that signal or remind them of negative age stereotypes.

This phenomenon is known as ‘age-based stereotype threat’ (ABST). Some of the 37 studies used official-type reports on age differences in performance as ‘fact-based’ cues to age stereotypes. Other studies gave subtle hints that performance was being pre-judged because of age criteria. For example, they told people taking the test that both young and old people were taking part, or that it was a ‘memory’ test, or that it required ‘fast responses and current knowledge e.g. about technology.’  Our meta-analysis revealed that older people’s cognitive performance suffered most when these more subtle cues to age stereotypes were used before cognitive testing.

Given that 1 in 3 people born today will live to 100, it is important that we are ready for the changes that this will bring. On BBC Breakfast’s Living Longer series, Lord Filkin stated that we need a “shift in attitudes by employers and also a shift by us as individuals” as those in their 80s and 90s that are able and want to, continue to work. ABST may disadvantage older workers, but also bias clinical evaluations and have a negative impact on economic outcomes.  But what can we do about it?

  • Acknowledge our prejudices: Altering negative perceptions of ageing is no small feat, but we can start with ourselves by acknowledging our own prejudices as a way of overcoming them. Although 28% of UK respondents surveyed in the ESS said they had experienced prejudice based on their age (Abrams & Swift, 2012), very few admitted to being age prejudiced. We must recognise that even our seemingly positive attitudes towards older adults may belittle them. When I tell people I study ageism, I have more than once been given the response ‘oh, I love old people’. The number of times I have heard others (and even myself) apply words such as ‘cute’ or ‘sweet’ to older adults reflects cultural readiness to infantilise older adults and separate them from others.
  • Get out more! A second suggestion would be to seek opportunities to meet with people of all ages and form genuine friendships. Research has shown that ABST has less effect on older adults who have had positive intergenerational interactions (Abrams, Eller & Bryant, 2006) or even those who have had more positive and frequent contact with their grandchildren (Abrams et al., 2008). When friendships are established across age groups, those of both ages become less likely to fall-back on age stereotypes and more likely to perceive one another’s strengths accurately.

Ruth A Lamont is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Kent in the Centre for the Study of Group Processes. Ruth’s research examines attitudes to age and the behavioral consequences of these attitudes.