Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Power of Negative Thinking

In my field of Social Psychology one of the most central principles is that people’s beliefs about themselves and others often have strong impacts on behavior. This can be a straight forward relationship, as when a person modifies their interaction with someone based on beliefs about the other’s characteristics – for instance, being guarded and reserved with someone we believe is untrustworthy.

More interesting, however, are instances where our beliefs have influences that are more subtle and indirect yet the outcome has significant consequences for our well-being. An example of this kind of phenomenon was reported in a recent article by researchers at the Yale School of Public Health and the National Institute on Aging. It caught my attention because... well, “aging” is getting to be a very personal thing.

The Yale group looked at the stereotypes people have about getting older – beliefs such as “old people are helpless” or “old people can’t learn new things.” Stereotypic beliefs are conveyed in a variety of ways in any given culture, most often through depictions in films, books, news stories, and broadcast media. Different cultures have different views of aging, of course – in some societies the aged are revered as sources of cultural heritage and wisdom while in others (our own, certainly) the aged are seen in primarily negative terms that center on losing physical and mental abilities. It is important to remember that stereotypes are not accurate representations of a group of people, but rather are exaggerations of qualities or outright fabrications of qualities.

The researchers examined an interesting and important question: “Does a younger person’s belief in negative aging stereotypes influence that person’s health as they themselves get older?” It is easy to imagine at least two possibilities here. First, if somebody believes in a negative notion of what it means to get older, they might develop health habits (high fat diet and lack of exercise, for example) that in fact lead to poorer health. On the other hand, having a negative view of aging might motivate a person to adopt habits that are widely held to prolong youth – strenuous exercise, diet supplements, plastic surgery — at least some of which may actually contribute to a healthier life as the person ages.

To answer their question the researchers turned to a large data base that has been accumulating for many years, the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging that was begun over forty years ago. In the 1960's a large group of young volunteers were given a battery of mental and physical tests, and these have been repeated at regular intervals as the individuals have gotten older. Included in the psychological measures was an assessment of the strength of each person’s belief in negative aging stereotypes. The physical measures of health included cardiovascular events such as angina attacks, congestive heart failures, myocardial infarctions, strokes, etc.

The results were clear and rather sobering. Younger individuals who held more negative age stereotypes were twice as likely (25%) to have a cardiovascular event over the next 30 years of their lives than those with more positive beliefs (13%). This relationship held even when the researchers controlled for other possible differences between the two groups when they were young. These included many things that are known risk factors for cardiovascular events: elevated blood pressure, family history of cardiovascular death, body mass index, depression, education, gender, marital status, number of chronic conditions, race, self-rated health, serum total cholesterol (milligrams per deciliter), and smoking history. These factors were not as good at predicting cardiovascular problems as the negative stereotypes people held.

The study raises a number of interesting questions that I’m sure the researchers are now trying to answer. For example, how do these individual differences in negative views of aging arise? Can the they be changed and if so, how? What behaviors did the negative beliefs engender that made the cardiovascular problems more likely? Can they be changed?

As we wait for the answers there is one thing that is a clear lesson from this study. Beware the power of negative thinking.

Reference: Age Stereotypes Held Earlier in Life Predict Cardiovascular Events in Later Life.
Becca R. Levy, Alan B. Zonderman, Martin D. Slade, and Luigi Ferrucci. Psychological Science, Volume 20, Issue 3, Pages 296-298.


J.C. said...

Wish I would have seen this post earlier, I would have used the article in my prejudice capstone this semester.

RS said...

I'm touched that I might still have a positive educational influence. Thanks.