Friday, March 19, 2010

Embracing Your Inner Geezer

As I pointed out in an earlier blog, a central finding from research in my field of Social Psychology is that stereotypes can have powerful influences on our behavior and judgments, and these effects can occur even when we are not aware of the process.

A particularly interesting phenomenon (to me, anyway, as I get older) has to do with aging stereotypes -- widespread beliefs and expectations about the characteristics and abilities of older people -- us geezers, in other words. In our society the stereotypical beliefs are mostly negative and have to do with loss of physical and cognitive abilities. One thing that makes aging stereotypes different from other forms of stereotyping, such as those directed at minority groups, is that all of us eventually become a member of the target group.

Note the implication of this. When we're young, we hold negative beliefs about all those "old farts" in society. At some point we finally become an old fart ourselves, and we have to deal somehow with the fact that those negative beliefs pertain to US.

Psychologist Beca Levy has proposed recently that many people may come to embody the aging stereotypes, with important personal consequences. In her words, "...stereotypes are embodied when their assimilation from the surrounding culture leads to self-definitions that, in turn, influence functioning and health" (Levy, 2009). The power of the influence is illustrated by a study of 50 year-old people whose self-perceptions of aging were measured and then their health and level of functioning was assessed over the next 20 years. Those who had more positive self-perceptions of aging at 50 had fewer health problems and lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those with negative perceptions! Importantly, these differences were not due to differences in how healthy participants were at the beginning of the study.

This study illustrates that the direction and strength of embodiment varies across people, with corresponding variations in the direction and strength of the effects. Other research has demonstrated that the influence of embodiment can vary from moment to moment, depending on the salience of stereotyped qualities in a particular situation -- that is, how much a quality like memory or physical strength is relevant to the task at hand. Imagine, for example, that you're "elderly" and you're trying to do your income taxes -- a rather complex cognitive task if there ever was one. Imagine also that you've just seen a movie depicting older people as befuddled and confused. Research mimicking this situation has shown that you are more likely to have a difficult time with the task than if you had not seen that negative movie. But importantly a movie that emphasized the positive qualities of aging, like wisdom and patience, might lead to doing the task even better.

These moment-to-moment effects of embodiment can occur even when the older person isn't thinking consciously about the stereotype. This is perhaps the most insidious aspect of all stereotypes -- they may influence us even when we aren't aware of it. It's one thing to see a movie that was obviously portraying aging in a certain way and then immediately going home to do your income taxes -- it's likely that you would be aware of the movie's message as you became confused trying to figure out the IRS instructions on, say, depreciation of tangible assets. You could consciously try to counter negative aspects of the movie or embrace positive ones and doing so might influence how well you do at your task. But many stereotypic cues are more subtle and we often don't even notice them -- the brief depiction of someone in a t.v. ad, or the quick encounter with the elderly Walmart greeter. Research has shown that these subtle, unconscious cues also may influence performance.

An example of this impact of subtle stereotypic cues is in another study by Levy. Groups of older participants were shown either positive or negative words associated with aging by flashing them on a screen very quickly -- so fast that people couldn't identify the exact word, but still encoded it (in other words, they weren't aware of the word but Levy could show that they had in fact processed it). Shortly afterward the participants performed seemingly unrelated tasks that required either memory or physical balance. Those who had been unconsiously primed with negative words did less well on both the cognitive and physical tests.

The implication of all this is that we may underestimate the impact of stereotypes on our functioning as we grow older and mistakenly attribute performance decline to aging rather than correcting attributing them to beliefs about aging. But this research also illustrates that if we embrace our inner geezer and focus on the positive aspects of aging we can overcome some of the negative expectations that lead to a self-fulfilling prophesy of cognitive and physical decline.

Grey Power!!


Levy, Becca R.(2009). Stereotype emodiment: A psychosocial approach to aging. Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol 18 (6), pp. 332-336.

Levy, Becca R. (2009). Leifheit-Limson, Eric. The stereotype-matching effect: Greater influence on functioning when age stereotypes correspond to outcomes. Psychology and Aging. Vol 24(1), pp. 230-233.


PaddleDoc said...

I just want someone else to do my taxes! I always have wanted someone else to do my taxes. My inner geezer is still up and wheezing along!

Coleen Hanna said...

My co-worker who is 30 years younger than me asked me to go on a trip with her. I agreed and am looking forward to it. She is your stereotypical 20-something young woman. We are taking a bus together and sharing a hotel room. I am using this situation to convince myself that I must be growing older gracefully because I wouldn't have dreamed of doing the same thing when I was in my 20's.

Richard Sherman said...

Hey, go for it! I think aging "gracefully" involves recognizing limitations, but not buying into the stereotypes about them. In general this means being a whole lot more positive and adventurous than our "role" prescribes...