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date: 16 August 2018

Critical Role of Social–Cognitive Age Representations

Summary and Keywords

In 2016, Statistics Canada released the results of the most recent census. For the first time ever, the proportion of Canadians aged 65-plus years surpassed the proportion aged 15 and under. The increase in the proportion of older adults was viewed as further evidence of the faster rate of aging of Canada’s population. Such demographic shifts are not unique to Canada; many industrialized nations around the world are experiencing similar changes in their populations. Increases in the older adult population in many countries might produce beneficial outcomes by increasing the potential for intergenerational contact and exposure to exemplars of successful aging. Such positive intergenerational contact could counter prevailing age stereotypes and improve intergenerational relations. On the other hand, such increases in the number of older adults could be viewed as a strain and potential threat to resources shared with younger age groups. The possibility of increased intergenerational conflict makes it more important than ever before to understand how older adults are stereotyped, how those stereotypes can produce different kinds of biased behavior toward them, and what the impact of those stereotypes are on older adults themselves.

Social-cognitive age representations are complex and multifaceted. A common stereotype applied to older people is one of warmth but incompetence, often resulting in paternalistic prejudice toward them. However, such benevolent prejudice, characterized by warm overtones, can change to hostile bias if older adults are perceived to violate prescriptive norms about age-appropriate behavior. In addition to coping with age prejudice, older adults also have to deal with the deleterious effects of negative age stereotypes on their day-to-day function. Exposure to negative aging stereotypes can worsen older adults’ cognitive performance in a number of contexts. As well, age stereotypes can be incorporated into older adults’ own views of aging, also leading to poorer outcomes for them in a variety of domains. A number of interventions to counteract the effects of negative aging stereotypes appear promising, but more work remains to be done to reduce the impact of negative aging stereotypes on daily function in later life.

Keywords: age stereotypes, views of aging, ageism, age prejudice, stereotype embodiment, stereotype threat

Wise. Frail. Kind. Stubborn. Generous. Bitter. Healthy. Senile. What do these characteristics have in common? They are all traits that have been ascribed to older adults. Such a variety of terms illustrates that people’s mental representations of older adults are complex, a fact reflected in the research on the content of age stereotypes (for a review, see Hummert, 2011). This article addresses a number of issues concerning the critical role social-cognitive age representations play in older people’s lives. First, it examines the complexity of age stereotypes, both from the lens of decades of gerontology research, as well as from social-psychological approaches to understanding group stereotypes. Second, it discusses how negative attitudes toward older people may be triggered, particularly when they are perceived to have violated prescriptive age stereotypes (North & Fiske, 2012). Third, the article describes how age stereotypes can become embodied as people age (Levy, 2009), making them more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of the negative age stereotypes they encounter in later life. Fourth, it examines techniques researchers are testing to reduce the influence of negative age stereotypes on the well-being of older people. Taken together, this review highlights the breadth and impact that people’s views of aging have in later life.

The Complexity of Age Stereotypes

Different groups can be stereotyped in different ways. Although the content of each stereotype varies from group to group, the Stereotype Content Model (SCM; Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002) posits that two overarching dimensions guide the formulation of stereotypic processes: perceptions of warmth and of competence. They suggest that when developing impressions of others, people want to know whether outgroup members have good intentions (warmth) and whether they have the ability to follow through with those intentions (competence). For example, it is common for older adults to be viewed as warm but incompetent (Cuddy, Norton, & Fiske, 2005). These positive and negative attitudes about groups can merge to create four possible corresponding forms of prejudice: paternalistic (high warmth, low competence, as in the stereotypes of older adults), envious (low warmth, high competence, as in stereotypes of Asians), contemptuous (low warmth, low competence, as in stereotypes of poor people), and admiration (high warmth, high competence, as in stereotypes of one’s ingroup).

Paternalistic Prejudice

Although prescribing a high-warmth or high-competence label to a group seems objectively positive, the outcome of the stereotype may not be positive depending on the pairing with the opposite dimension. For example, high warmth but low competence indicates that though a group may exhibit positive qualities, such as likeability and friendliness, the interaction with low competence (or incompetence) fosters paternalistic prejudice. Groups that are ascribed the high warmth but low competence label may be viewed as warm, but they are also pitied, such as older adults (Fiske et al., 2002) and people who are poor (Durante, Tablante, & Fiske, 2017).

In the context of ageism, paternalistic prejudice can manifest in various ways (Nelson, 2005). For example, in a series of studies, Erber, Szuchman, and Rothberg (1990) found that incompetence stereotypes were applied to older adults when participants had to attribute the cause of a person’s memory failure. When the forgetful target was a young adult, participants were likely to make situational attributions (e.g., simply not paying attention), but when the target was an older adult, participants made more dispositional attributions, such as viewing the target as incompetent. Applications of an incompetence stereotype have also been documented in work on elderspeak, whereby people speak to older adults using short and simple language, regardless of the individual’s health or cognitive abilities. For example, Kemper (1994) discovered that service providers and caregivers in a nursing home regularly engaged in elderspeak when they addressed the residents. Both examples are rooted in stereotypes that older adults are incompetent, and both are often misinterpreted as helping behaviors, despite being offensive and potentially harmful.

The BIAS Map and Pitied Groups

While the stereotype content model (SCM) discusses the process of utilizing warmth and competence ratings to understand prejudice type, the Behaviors from Intergroup Affect and Stereotypes (BIAS) Map illustrates how prejudice type can predict behavior (Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, 2007). The authors note that warmth and competence stereotypes act as catalysts for certain types of behavior. For example, warmth stereotypes can elicit active harm (harassing) and active facilitation (helping), whereas competence stereotypes can elicit passive harm (neglecting) and passive facilitation (associating with, uniting).

Stereotypes of pitied groups contain mixed components (high warmth, low competence), which result in both active facilitation (helping, protecting) and passive harm (excluding, demeaning). Pity is the driving force behind helping behavior, as it is associated with both compassion and sadness toward groups who appear to be unable to control their poor circumstances. However, because pity stereotypes are also ascribed to groups who are labeled as having low competence, feelings of disrespect may lead to avoidance and dismissive or demeaning behaviors (Cuddy et al., 2007).

Even when older adults do not fit neatly into stereotypes of incompetence, they may face negative evaluations. Cuddy et al. (2005) investigated the effects of altering competence levels in vignettes about older adults. The vignette described George, an older adult who was depicted as either having very poor memory or having perfect memory. Results demonstrated that when George was described as having a perfect memory, participants were not likely to rate him as more competent than the poor-memory condition. However, the competent George faced penalties in warmth, such that as competence ratings increased, warmth ratings decreased. These results suggest that older adults may be pitied and face paternalistic behaviors to the degree that they are thought of as incompetent, and that there may be consequences for violating age-based stereotypes. A recent measure of age-based bias illustrates the varying reactions to older people. The Ambivalent Ageism Scale (AAS; Cary, Chasteen, & Remedios, 2017) assesses benevolent, or paternalistic, prejudice toward older adults, as well as hostile, or contemptuous, prejudice.

Descriptive Stereotypes

The mounting evidence from research on the content of age stereotypes suggests that older adults can be categorized into many stereotypes, and that perceivers may endorse each of the age stereotypes to varying degrees (Brewer, Dull, & Lui, 1981). In early research attempting to identify the content of stereotypes of older adults, one sample of participants generated a list of traits, and then a second sample of participants sorted these traits into groups representing types of older adults (Hummert, 1990; Hummert, Garstka, Shaner, & Strahm, 1994; Schmidt & Boland, 1986). Using this methodology, both Hummert (1990) and Schmidt and Boland (1986) identified the same five negative and three positive stereotypic categories of older adults that are produced by young adults. Hummert et al. (1994) went on to test whether there are age differences in mental representations of the target group older adults by including young, middle-aged, and older participants. They identified four negative and three positive stereotypic representations of older adults held by young, middle-aged, and older adults. Several traits representative of each stereotypic category of older adults include:

  1. 1. Severely Impaired (negative) includes incompetent, senile, incoherent, feeble, and slow-thinking.

  2. 2. Despondent (negative) includes depressed, lonely, neglected, and afraid.

  3. 3. Recluse (negative) includes timid, naive, poor, sedentary, and dependent.

  4. 4. Shrew/Curmudgeon (negative) includes ill-tempered, complaining, bitter, and snobbish.

  5. 5. Golden Ager (positive) includes being adventurous, lively, sociable, skilled, successful, well-informed, witty, independent, and productive.

  6. 6. Perfect Grandparent (positive) includes loving, supportive, family oriented, understanding, and generous.

  7. 7. John Wayne Conservative (positive) includes patriotic, retired, nostalgic, and religious.

Although both positive and negative representations of older adults exist, the research presented thus far has consistently listed more negative than positive stereotypic categories of older adults. This suggests that, though descriptive stereotypes of older adults may be a mix of both positive and negative stereotypes, older adults may be viewed more negatively than positively on the whole. Indeed, Hummert, Garstka, and Shaner (1997) demonstrated that younger, middle-aged, and older adults ascribed more negative than positive stereotypic traits to older adults. Furthermore, the traits ascribed to older adults became more negative as the age of older adults increased from young-old (60–69 years) to old-old (80 or more years).

Although consistent descriptive age stereotypes exist across the lifespan, not everyone endorses these stereotypes to the same degree, and this variability may be based on several factors. First, although the seven stereotypic groupings of older adults listed by Hummert et al. (1994) were consistently produced by individuals at various points in their lifespans, there are some differences between the stereotypes produced by younger adult versus older adult perceivers. For instance, in addition to the seven categories, older adults created an additional two negative stereotypic categories (Self-Centered, Mildly Impaired) and one positive stereotypic category (Liberal Matriarch/Patriarch), which were not produced by younger adults (Hummert et al., 1994). Furthermore, when ascribing traits to photographs of older adult targets, older adult perceivers ascribed significantly fewer positive stereotypic traits to old-old adult targets compared to young and middle-aged adult perceivers (Hummert et al., 1997). Therefore, the evidence suggests that older adults (compared to younger adults) may break the category older adults into a more complex set of stereotypic categories, and that stereotypes may be applied differently depending on the age of the older adult target.

Other features of the older adult target, such as gender, may also predict evaluations of older adults. For instance, perceivers ascribed more positive stereotypes to smiling and to male photographs of older adults (Hummert et al., 1997). In support of these findings, a meta-analysis by Kite, Stockdale, Whitley, and Johnson (2005) revealed that evaluations of warmth toward older versus younger adult women were more negative than evaluations toward older versus younger adult men. On the other hand, older versus younger adult men’s competence was viewed more negatively than that of older versus younger adult women. When also taking into account the older adult targets’ ages, more complex patterns of stereotype assignment emerge. In Hummert et al. (1997), perceivers ascribed more positive stereotypes to photos of young-old (60–69 years) and middle-old (70–79 years) males than to photos of young-old and middle-old females, respectively. However, more positive stereotypes were ascribed to photos of old-old (80 or more years old) females than old-old males.

People may also apply descriptive stereotypes to older adults differently depending on the life domain in which the older person is being assessed. Kornadt and Rothermund (2011) tested stereotypic evaluations of older adults and identified eight life domains that are relevant to the aging process: (a) family and partnership; (b) friends and acquaintances; (c) religion and spirituality; (d) leisure activities and social commitments; (e) personality and way of living; (f) finances and money-related issues; (g) work and employment; and (h) fitness, health, and appearance. Older adults were evaluated most positively in the domains of family and partnership, religion and spirituality, and work and employment; whereas they were evaluated most negatively in the domains of friends and acquaintances; leisure and social; and fitness, health, and appearance. Perceivers’ age also affected perceptions of older adults in these various domains. For instance, older adult perceivers rated older adults significantly more positively in the work and employment domain than younger perceivers did.

Prescriptive Stereotypes

Unlike the well-developed literature on descriptive stereotypes, research on prescriptive stereotypes of older adults is relatively scarce. Descriptive age stereotypes refer to people’s mental representations of what older adults are like. In contrast, prescriptive age stereotypes refer to people’s expectations of how older adults should behave (North & Fiske, 2012, 2013a, 2013b). Prescriptive age stereotypes involve norms whereby older adults are expected to gradually move away from mainstream society and, in so doing, relinquish their control of desired resources to younger age groups (North & Fiske, 2012, 2013a, 2013b). North and Fiske theorize that this is because people expect to take turns accessing societal resources, and older adults are viewed as having had their turn receiving these resources. By surrendering resources to younger generations, older adults open up opportunities for middle-aged adults to “move up in the world,” thereby leaving opportunities for younger adults to acquire resources, of which they have few or none. Young adults therefore potentially have the most to gain from endorsing prescriptive age stereotypes. In line with this hypothesis, research by North and Fiske (2012) revealed that younger adults endorse and expect older adults to adhere to prescriptive age stereotypes more than older adults do.

North and Fiske (2012) proposed three domains in which young adults are likely to strongly endorse prescriptive age stereotypes, creating sources of tension between the younger and older generations. If older adults are perceived to violate expectations in any of the three domains, young adults may feel that their own resources and identities are threatened, leading to negativity toward older adults.

The first domain, succession, refers to actively passing on desired resources to younger adults. Expectations of older adults in this domain include letting go of power, wealth, and employment. Older adults may be perceived as violating these expectations by, for instance, having a great deal of political influence (Binstock, 2010), not sharing wealth (North & Fiske, 2013a), or delaying retirement and thus restricting access to employment for younger adults (Pew Research Center, 2017). If older adults do not actively give up resources, they may be viewed as barriers to younger adults’ accessing limited resources. Rather than pity, younger adults may feel envious and angry toward older adults when succession-based stereotypes are violated (North & Fiske, 2012). These feelings of envy and anger may be particularly directed toward young-old rather than old-old adults because young-old adults tend to be relatively healthy and active, as well as have high incomes and hold senior positions in their careers (North & Fiske, 2013b).

The second domain, consumption, refers to older adults’ use of resources that are shared in society. For instance, Social Security and Medicare in the United States are government funds paid for by young and middle-aged adults who plan to use these funds themselves in old age. When concerns about depletion of these funds arise (e.g., Saletta, 2017), older adults may be viewed as overconsuming their fair share of resources, and young adults may fear that such social programs will disappear before they have a chance to benefit from them (North & Fiske, 2012). Therefore, younger adults may feel anger and disgust toward older adults if they view older adults as using societal resources excessively (North & Fiske, 2012). Unlike succession-based violations, consumption-based violations primarily concern old-old adults because they tend to be viewed as contributing little to society and as low in status; therefore, others may desire them to use fewer resources (North & Fiske, 2013b).

The third domain, identity, attempts to reduce potential threats to young adults’ symbolic resources. In particular, identity refers to maintaining boundaries between younger and older generations’ roles and behaviors in society. Older adults may be perceived as violating these expectations if, for instance, they try to appear more youthful (e.g., having cosmetic surgery done) or engage in interests that are considered to be youthful (e.g., listening to popular music), and these violations are often met with negativity toward older adults (Chasteen, Bashir, Gallucci, & Visekruna, 2011; North & Fiske, 2013a; Schoemann & Branscombe, 2011). North and Fiske (2012) theorized that young adults may be especially concerned with keeping their generational identity distinct from that of older adults to preserve independence and a positive view of their ingroup (i.e., young adults), as well as to safeguard against the threat of their own mortality (Snyder & Miene, 1994; Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

Content of Age Stereotypes Across Cultures

Most of the research to date on the content of age stereotypes has been conducted in Western countries, and little is known about the consistency of these stereotypes and attitudes toward older adults across cultures. Some researchers have found that Easterners have more positive attitudes toward older adults than Westerners do (e.g., Zhang, Hummert, & Garstka, 2002). Conversely, other studies have found that Westerners have more positive attitudes than Easterners do (e.g., North & Fiske, 2015). Still other studies have found no difference between Eastern and Western countries in their attitudes toward older adults (e.g., Zhang et al., 2016). Irrespective of which of these findings most accurately represents the degree of positivity (or negativity) toward older adults across cultures, there is much consensus between cultures about the content of age stereotypes. For instance, the Chinese participants in Zhang et al. (2002) identified many of the same stereotypes identified by the American participants in Hummert et al. (1994). However, descriptions of several stereotypes not mentioned by Americans were listed by Chinese participants, such as superstitious and experienced (Zhang et al., 2002), suggesting that, though largely similar, representations of older adults may contain unique descriptors across cultures.

With respect to prescriptive age stereotypes, North and Fiske (2012) speculated that expectations about older adults’ use of resources may be similar across cultures because older adults are perceived to contribute little to society and are not valued as highly as younger adults are. However, empirical research testing this hypothesis has yet to be conducted.

Effects of Age Stereotypes on Older Adults: Stereotype Embodiment

Given the findings on descriptive age stereotypes showing that adults of all ages hold stereotypes of older people, it is perhaps not surprising how well-established older adults’ own endorsements of age stereotypes are (Barber, 2017). As children, individuals internalize age stereotypes (for a review, see Robinson & Howatson-Jones, 2014). Throughout adulthood, individuals continue accepting these stereotypes because they are largely impervious to them. Thus, aging stereotypes are reinforced throughout one’s life until finally, at old age, they become self-stereotypes (Levy, 2003). This internalization of age stereotypes across the lifespan is the first component of stereotype embodiment theory (Levy, 2009).

Stereotype embodiment theory proposes that self-identifying with cultural stereotypes affects one’s health and functioning (Levy, 2009). Stereotype internalization is the first component of the theory. The second, third, and fourth components are that the stereotypes can be influential without conscious awareness, become salient through self-relevancy, and work through multiple pathways (behavioral, physiological, and psychological).

Implicit Activation of Age Stereotypes

In line with the second component of stereotype embodiment theory (implicit stereotype activation) and fourth (operate through multiple pathways), research has shown that the activation of negative aging stereotypes can have detrimental effects on older adults’ cognition, behavior, health, and will to live (Levy, 2000; Levy, Ashman, & Dror, 1999–2000; Meisner, 2012; Stein, Blanchard-Fields, & Hertzog, 2002).

Regarding cognition, the effects of implicit age stereotypes on memory have been well-documented. For example, Levy (1996) found that older adults primed with negative aging stereotypes (e.g., incompetent) performed significantly worse on four visual-memory tasks compared to those primed with positive aging stereotypes (e.g., wise). However, without a neutral condition, it could not be concluded whether it was negative primes that stunted memory performance or positive primes that enhanced memory performance or both. In an attempt to answer this question, Stein et al. (2002) performed an extension of Levy’s work by including a neutral testing condition. Results demonstrated that older adults who were primed with negative age stereotypes performed significantly worse on a photo recall test than did those in the neutral condition. However, older adults who were primed with positive stereotypes did not perform any better than those in the neutral condition. Because none of the positive prime words were associated with memory, Stein et al. suggested that positive age stereotypes might only work when they are directly related to the situation.

Evidence for Stein et al.’s (2002) prediction about context-specific primes was later demonstrated by Levy and Leifheit-Limson (2009). They manipulated the stereotype content (cognitive vs. physical), stereotype valence (positive vs. negative), and outcome domain (cognitive vs. physical) and found that older adults performed the best cognitively when they were primed with positive cognitive aging stereotypes, followed by positive physical-aging stereotypes, negative physical-aging stereotypes, and then negative cognitive-aging stereotypes. Likewise, participants performed the best physically when they were primed with positive physical-aging stereotypes, followed by positive cognitive-aging stereotypes, negative cognitive-aging stereotypes, and then negative physical-aging stereotypes.

In addition to the cognitive fitness and physical domains, implicit age stereotypes can also affect older adults’ motivation. For example, Levy et al. (1999–2000) found that older adults primed with negative aging stereotypes were significantly less likely to seek medical treatment for a hypothetical situation compared to older adults primed with positive aging stereotypes. Implicit age stereotypes had no effect on young people’s motivation to live. Furthermore, older adults who were primed with positive aging stereotypes did not differ from young people in their motivation to live. The effects of implicit age stereotypes remained regardless of religious views, views of aging, perceived health, chance of recovery, financial burden, and age. Marques, Lima, Abrams, and Swift (2014) later replicated the finding that older adults’ will to live was higher when they were primed with positive compared with negative age stereotypes, but that those stereotypes had no effect on young adults. The findings from these studies are important because together, they demonstrate how pervasive implicit age stereotypes can be in influencing older adults’ life decisions, even in cases of life or death.

Although positive age stereotypes can influence behavior in a positive way, Meisner (2012) reported that the detrimental effects of implicit negative age stereotypes are nearly three times larger than are the beneficial effects of implicit positive primes. Furthermore, negative age stereotypes that act implicitly on older adults can be exceedingly harmful because individuals may not realize the negative impact that the stereotype had on their behavior (Levy, 2003). This oversight leads to attributing the failure to one’s old age, thereby reinforcing the negative age stereotype.

Age-Based Stereotype Threat

Another way that age stereotypes might negatively affect older adults is through stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is a phenomenon that occurs in situations in which one is aware that one’s actions could confirm a negative stereotype about a group with which one self-identifies; upon realizing this, one underperforms compared to one’s potential and, ironically, reinforces the negative stereotype that one was trying to avoid (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Stereotype threat, unlike priming, is elicited through the explicit activation of negative (and sometimes positive) stereotypes (Wheeler & Petty, 2001) and has been shown to affect a variety of stereotyped groups, including older adults (for reviews, see Chasteen & Cary, 2015; Chasteen, Kang, & Remedios, 2011; Lamont, Swift, & Abrams, 2015; Spencer, Logel, & Davies, 2016). Stereotype threat can impair older adults’ cognitive performance (e.g., memory), driving confidence, physical ability (e.g., grip strength), and metamemory beliefs (Barber & Mather, 2013; Bouazzaoui et al., 2016; Chapman, Sargent-Cox, Horswill, & Anstey 2016; Swift, Lamont, & Abrams, 2012).

In addition to studying the domains in which older adults are affected by stereotype threat, researchers have focused on how stereotype threat disrupts performance. Schmader, Johns, and Forbes (2008) proposed an integrated process model that explains the effect of stereotype threat on working memory. Specifically, stereotype threat consumes executive resources by (a) heightening physiological arousal, which disrupts prefrontal processing; (b) increasing performance management; and (c) increasing the self-regulation of negative affect and cognition. This consumption of executive resources leads to performance impairment in the stereotyped domain by leaving fewer executive resources to complete the task at hand. This process model has received wide support in studies with young adults (e.g., Schmader & Johns, 2003). However, results have been inconsistent for older adults.

One explanation for the inconsistency in these results is that as people age, their emotional regulation improves (Scheibe & Blanchard‑Fields, 2009). The increased ability to regulate negative emotions may nullify the effect stereotype threat has on executive resources (Barber & Mather, 2013; Popham & Hess, 2013). If working-memory impairment does not explain the effect of stereotype threat on performance in older adults, then what does? Barber and Mather (2013) tested two competing predictions about stereotype threat’s effect on the memory performance of older adults: executive-control disruption and regulatory fit. Regulatory-focus theory proposes that there are two methods of pursuing goals. One can be motivated to actively seek pleasure or gains (promotion focused); or one can be motivated to avoid pain or losses (prevention focused; Higgins, 1997). Individuals who are promotion focused will perform better on tasks that emphasize a gains-based reward structure; whereas individuals who are prevention focused will perform better on tasks that emphasize a losses-based reward structure. In other words, people perform better on tasks in which there is regulatory fit between their motivational state and the reward structure (Higgins, 2000).

Barber and Mather (2013) predicted that if stereotype threat gives rise to a prevention-focused approach to tasks, then older adults should perform poorly when the memory task is gains-based, but well on tasks that are losses-based. However, if stereotype threat reduces older adults’ working memory, then they should perform poorly on the memory task regardless of the reward structure. To test these hypotheses, the researchers had older adults complete a working-memory task and manipulated whether or not the individual was under stereotype threat and the reward structure (gains-based vs. losses-based) of the task. Half the participants received a monetary reward when they correctly recalled a word; the other half received a monetary penalty when they failed to correctly recall a word.

Results were consistent with the regulatory-fit hypothesis: older adults under stereotype threat performed worse than the control group when the task was gains-based, but performed better than the control group when the task was losses-based. It appears that when older adults feel under threat, they are more concerned with not failing a test than with striving for excellence. The finding that stereotype threat increased performance when the task was losses-based directly contradicts the executive-control disruption hypothesis. That is, performance would not have improved if the participants’ working memory was compromised. Other literature has also supported the regulatory-fit theory for the effects of stereotype threat on older adults (Barber, 2017; Barber, Mather, & Gatz, 2015; Hess, Hinson, & Hodges, 2009; Popham & Hess, 2013).

Mediators and Moderators of Stereotype Threat Effects

Several studies have investigated factors that strengthen and reduce stereotype threat effects on performance in older adults. Hess, Auman, Colcombe, and Rahhal (2003) found that there was a negative relationship between the degree of negative stereotype activation and memory performance. These results are evidence that stereotype threat works most effectively through one’s awareness of stereotype activation. Furthermore, older adults who strongly identify with their age cohort also experience more severe stereotype threat effects compared to their counterparts (Kang & Chasteen, 2009). However, even though strong self-identification is associated with poorer performance, it can also act as a buffer against some consequences of stereotype threat that occur due to negative affect (Kang & Chasteen, 2009).

Hess et al. (2003) demonstrated that there was a negative relationship between memory performance and valuing one’s memory. Therefore, stereotype threat is more likely to be most detrimental to older adults who place high importance in the domain that is at stake. In line with this, stereotype threat seems to affect highly educated individuals more than less-educated individuals (Hess et al., 2009). This finding is likely because of highly educated people placing more importance on cognitive ability.

The effects of stereotype threat may be particularly disruptive to the performance of those entering old age (60 to 75 years), compared to those who have been considered an older adult for quite some time (Eich, Murayama, Castel, & Knowlton, 2014). The transition period from middle adulthood to late adulthood may make stereotype threat particularly salient because individuals are attentive to signs that indicate whether they should be considered part of the older adult cohort. This heightened anxiety about fulfilling negative aging stereotypes predisposes young-old adults under threat to experience larger impairments in their behavior compared to their potential. Once individuals accept and become accustomed to their old-age group membership, negative age stereotypes likely become less threatening (Eich et al., 2014; Hess et al., 2009).

Finally, there are inconsistent findings regarding whether anxiety or self-efficacy reduces the memory performance of older adults under stereotype threat. Desrichard and Köpetz (2005) showed that older adults with lower memory self-efficacy performed worse on a memory task when the instructions emphasized memory (rather than spatial orientation) compared to their highly self-efficacious counterparts. However, Chasteen, Bhattacharyya, Horhota, Tam, and Hasher (2005) found that self-efficacy was unrelated to test performance. Desrichard and Köpetz (2005) suggested the possibility that stereotype threat decreases memory performance by increasing anxiety levels, especially in older adults with lower levels of memory self-efficacy. However, there are inconsistent findings regarding whether increased anxiety affects test performance (Abrams, Eller, & Bryant, 2006; Chasteen et al., 2005). Furthermore, Hess et al. (2009) found that though self-reported negative affect marginally increased under threat, it did not influence stereotype threat effects on memory performance. As described earlier in this section, older adults’ increased ability to regulate their emotions may be partially responsible for these inconsistent results (Barber, 2017).

Implications of Stereotype Threat

As the baby boomers head into retirement, the older adult population is increasing drastically. Because of this, negative aging stereotypes will affect a substantial proportion of our population. Furthermore, given that life expectancy is increasing, there has been a recent shift toward believing that physical and cognitive decline begins in middle adulthood, rather than late adulthood (Gullette, 2011). This greater longevity may be one reason why negative aging stereotypes are becoming more extreme (Barber, 2017). With the average age of the general population increasing, researchers must be mindful when testing older adults for cognitive fitness that stereotype threat plays a large role in disrupting older adults’ cognitive scores, largely because most tests have a gains-based structure. When a task’s reward structure cannot be changed, finding solutions to avoid stereotype activation in older adults can be difficult because feasible methods, such as reframing task instructions to de-emphasize cognitive diagnostic components, are inconsistent in their ability to reduce stereotype-threat activation (Chasteen et al., 2005; Desrichard & Köpetz, 2005; Hess et al., 2003).

Excess disability refers to the additional impairment in functioning that is not the result of organic or mental-health impairments (Brody, Kleban, Lawton, & Silverman, 1971). Individuals with dementia may be at an increased risk for excess disability due to negative aging stereotypes (Scholl & Sabat, 2008). For example, research on people with dementia may be skewed because being tested in a laboratory may elicit stereotype threat and, consequently, lead to greater cognitive impairment compared to the individual’s potential (Hess et al., 2003). Similarly, in hospital settings, physicians may treat individuals with dementia in a stereotype-consistent way, thereby eliciting stereotype threat and increased impairment in these contexts as well (Scholl & Sabat, 2008). Finally, stereotype threat can impair older adults’ performance on cognitive exams that prescreen for dementia. For example, Mazerolle et al. (2017) found that 40% of participants under stereotype threat met the prescreening criteria for dementia compared to only 10% in the reduced-threat group. It will be important for future research to tease apart the extent to which memory impairments in individuals with dementia are due to illness versus the effects of stereotype threat.

Implications of Views of Aging for Older Adults

According to stereotype embodiment theory (Levy, 2009), many older adults likely developed a negative view of aging through frequent exposure to negative age stereotypes earlier in life. As has been demonstrated in research using stereotype priming or stereotype-threat techniques, the negative views of aging that older adults may hold may be triggered in various situations and affect their subsequent performance in a variety of domains. Other research has shown the effects of older people’s views of aging by directly measuring those views and determining what they predict. For example, Levy and colleagues have shown worsened outcomes in a number of domains for older people who hold negative views of aging. These include poorer memory performance (Levy & Langer, 1994), hearing function (Levy, Slade, & Gill, 2006), health over time (Levy, Slade, & Kasl, 2002), survival (Levy, Slade, Kunkel, & Kasl, 2002), recovery from disability (Levy, Slade, Murphy, & Gill, 2012), and greater prevalence of psychiatric conditions (Levy, Pilver, & Pietrzak, 2014).

Other researchers have investigated the influence of older people’s views of aging on multiple modalities at once. Chasteen, Pichora-Fuller, Dupuis, Singh, and Smith (2015) assessed older adults’ views of aging by measuring their feelings of age-based stigma and their fears of aging. They found that older adults’ views of aging predicted their function in two separate domains through their self-perceived abilities in those domains. Specifically, the more negative older adults’ views of aging were, the worse they perceived their memory and hearing abilities to be, and the worse they performed on memory and hearing tests. These findings help illustrate how older people’s views of aging play an important role in their self-perceptions and associated function in both low-level sensory and higher-level cognitive domains.

Older adults’ views of aging may also be influenced by their beliefs concerning human abilities and characteristics in general. People’s lay theories about the mutability of human traits and abilities tend to fall into two groups (Dweck, Chiu, & Hong, 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1988). Entity theorists believe that human abilities and characteristics are fixed, whereas incremental theorists view them as modifiable. Such beliefs have implications for older adults’ views of aging, whereby they may view aging as a process that is fixed or as one that can be influenced by behavior. This could result in different approaches to aging, whereas entity theorists would be less likely to engage in behaviors associated with better aging outcomes compared to incremental theorists. Indeed, Plaks and Chasteen (2013) showed that older adults who are entity theorists performed worse on both free-recall and working-memory tests than did older adults who were incremental theorists. Moreover, older adults primed with an entity view performed worse on those memory tests than those primed with an incremental view, and this was due, in part, to greater feelings of worry (Plaks & Chasteen, 2013). Measuring a related concept of essentialist beliefs about aging, Weiss (2016) showed that older adults who view the process of aging as fixed and unavoidable were vulnerable to the effects of negative age stereotypes on memory performance, whereas those low in essentialist beliefs were not. Activating negative age stereotypes in older people high in essentialist beliefs about aging also led to an increased stress response, in the form of elevated systolic blood pressure. Taken together, these studies demonstrate additional ways older adults’ views of aging have implications for their health and functioning in a variety of domains.

Interventions and Coping Strategies for Dealing With Negative Representations of Aging

What are some ways that older adults might cope with the negative views of aging they have developed over time? One strategy may be to think of themselves as younger than their chronological age. Indeed, a growing literature has shown that feeling subjectively younger than one’s actual age occurs frequently among older adults (Kotter-Grühn, Kornadt, & Stephan 2016; Rubin & Berntsen, 2006). Furthermore, feeling subjectively younger has been associated with a number of positive outcomes, particularly in the domains of cognitive health and well-being (Kotter-Grühn, Neupert, & Stephan, 2015; Stephan, Caudroit, Jaconelli, & Terracciano, 2014; Stephan, Sutin, Caudroit, & Terracciano, 2016; Westerhof & Barrett, 2005). Another strategy is for older adults to identify with their generation instead of their chronological age group. By focusing on being a Baby Boomer, for example, older adults in that cohort can focus on common experiences and share youthful reminders, instead of thinking about the negative stereotypes that are associated with their chronological age. Weiss and Lang (2009) argued that chronological-age identification leads older people to focus on their elderly identity and associated negative age stereotypes, whereas generation identification provides a sense of belongingness based on socially shared experiences over time. In support of their assertion, they found that older adults’ identification with same-aged people was negatively associated with well-being; whereas generation identification was positively associated.

Improving Views of Aging: Implicit Interventions

Aside from strategies that older individuals themselves can implement to cope with negative images of aging, researchers have also been testing the efficacy of different interventions to improve older adults’ views of aging and resultant outcomes. One such approach has been to use implicit techniques to counteract older people’s negative views of aging. For example, work by Levy (1996) and Stein et al. (2002) examined the potential benefits of priming older adults with positive age stereotypes. As noted earlier, Levy found that older adults who were implicitly primed with positive aging stereotypes performed better on all subsets of a memory task compared to both their baseline result (before intervention) and the negative prime group. In contrast, participants primed with negative aging stereotypes performed significantly worse than their baseline performance. However, Stein et al. (2002) did not find such benefits of positive age-stereotype primes, relative to a control condition. Interestingly, both Levy (1996) and Hess, Hinson, and Statham (2004) found that explicit interventions (e.g., providing explicit positive feedback) were unsuccessful at improving performance. Researchers have hypothesized that explicit interventions may be unsuccessful because they do not outweigh the power of negative self-stereotypes that have infiltrated thinking and behavior over the course of a lifetime, and that addressing the enemy within (i.e., self-stereotypes) is essential (Levy, 1996, 2001).

In a similar line of research, Levy, Pilver, Chung, and Slade (2014) investigated whether implicitly priming older adults with positive self-stereotypes may be applied outside the cognitive domain to enhance physical function. Participants in their study were either assigned to an implicit positive age-stereotype intervention, an explicit positive age-stereotype intervention, or a neutral control group. Participants in the implicit condition were subliminally exposed to positive age-stereotype words once per week over a 4-week period; whereas participants in the explicit condition were asked to imagine and write about a mentally and physically healthy senior citizen. All participants completed measures that captured age stereotypes, self-perceptions of aging, and physical function. The results of the study were threefold: the implicit intervention strengthened positive age stereotypes and positive self-perceptions of aging, and significantly improved physical functioning compared to the control group and the explicit-intervention group. Furthermore, the implicit intervention was predictive of positive age stereotypes and positive self-perceptions of aging, which in turn, led to an increase in improved physical function.

Taken together, these lines of intervention research suggest that implicitly priming older adults with positive stereotypes about aging is effective at improving quality of life in several domains including memory, views of aging, and physical health.

Improving Views of Aging: Explicit Interventions

Although some studies using explicit interventions did not find beneficial outcomes for older adults (Hess et al., 2004; Levy, 1996), other researchers have found success using explicit approaches. In work conducted by Brothers and Diehl (2016), the AgingPlus program was developed as an intervention to reduce both negative views of aging and improve physical activity. Brothers and Diehl reported that older adults who endorse negative views of aging are at a significantly greater risk for poor health outcomes. The AgingPlus program devotes the first four weeks of the program to education and attitude change regarding aging (educational period) and then focuses on implementing changes in the following four weeks (experiential period), with assessments occurring at baseline (week 0), immediately after the educational period (week 4), and one month after the experiential period (week 12). Results revealed that the AgingPlus program led to improved views of aging, feelings of self-efficacy, and engagement in physical activity. These results seem promising in improving both cognitive and physical aspects of health, and support other research that has demonstrated that physical activity leads to higher levels of physical fitness and improved views of aging (Klusmann, Evers, Schwarzer, & Heuser, 2012). However, because the authors in the original AgingPlus study did not include a control group, more research using these intervention methods is necessary to evaluate its efficacy.

Other forms of explicit intervention for ageism involve not only the targets of ageism (older adults), but also other age groups. Although the literature discussed in this section has focused largely on older adults who have negative views of aging, it is essential to note that various age groups in society perpetuate ageism. One possible intervention method that could target both older adults and younger age groups to reduce prejudice is intergenerational contact, which stems from intergroup contact theory (Pettigrew, 1998). Abrams et al. (2006) hypothesized that the potential of intergenerational contact was twofold: first, to reduce prejudice, and second, to reduce the social comparison between the abilities of older adults and younger adults, thus eliminating stereotype threat. In their study, older adults completed a series of cognitive tasks under low or high stereotype threat after interacting with a younger adult in which the interaction was either more or less positive. Results demonstrated that stereotype-threat effects were diminished when intergenerational contact prior to a task was positive. As well, other recent findings have demonstrated additional benefits of positive intergenerational contact, such as reductions in perceptions of incompetence, greater sense of commonality with older people, more positive attitudes toward older adults, and reductions in ageism (Cadieux & Chasteen, 2018; Drury, Abrams, & Swift, 2017). Together, these results highlight the important role that all members of society can partake in to tackle stereotypes faced by older adults, and to improve relations and performance outcomes in the older adult population.


Throughout their lives, older adults are exposed to a variety of negative age stereotypes, which often results in their adopting those negative views of aging themselves. These views are complex, multifaceted, and applicable to a variety of domains in older people’s lives. Such negative mental representations of aging have deleterious consequences for older people, particularly for their cognitive and mental health. Ongoing efforts to combat these views of aging are vital as the population of older people continues to increase and the need for preserving their independence grows.


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