Applying Psychological Science, Benefiting Society

What’s the Secret to Combating Ageist Stereotypes? It’s Complicated

Senior woman make-up face on white background

By Jeff McCarthy, MA (University of Windsor) & Anne Baird, PhD (University of Windsor)

In Western societies, negative stereotypes about being an older person predominate. However, these patterns vary across groups and across times. Typically, researchers study ways to diminish the negative impact of stereotypes on two groups:

  • younger adults, to whom these negative stereotypes are not applied by others or themselves4
  • older adults, to whom these negative stereotypes likely are applied both by others and themselves.

Reducing the impact of these stereotypes on older people themselves has been the subject of some interesting recent studies.

 

When we look at the way older people are shown in and participate in traditional and social media, we see both progress and continued shortcomings. On the one hand, a study of Super Bowl commercials from 2010 to 2014 suggested more appearances of older characters than in earlier traditional media1. Moreover, the portrayal of these characters overall was more positive than in the past.

 

On the other hand, the use of social media by older people and the description of them in these media are far from optimal. Social media are potential avenues for older people to address ageism directly and advocate for themselves, but inaccessibility of design, failure to appreciate the value of social media, and worries about privacy keep some older people from pursuing these avenues9.

 

A review of over 80 public Facebook groups related to aging uncovered overwhelmingly unfavorable comments about older people in all but one5. In addition to the lack of participation by older people, Levy and colleagues5 give several reasons for this harsh negative bias. These reasons include:

  • the fact that creators of these sites were younger rather than older people
  • the known tendency for stereotypes of all kinds to become more negative as an individual’s contact with social media increases5.

The lack of participation by older people and the prominence of negative aging stereotypes on social media work to accentuate unfavorable views about aging9.

 

So, how do we deal with this?

 

Most people would be tempted to shine a light on these negative stereotypes. By bringing them to attention, we can reduce them, right? Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be that easy. Ironically, while some interventions with explicit focus on the stereotypes may help (e.g., imagined intergroup contact10), there is growing evidence that this approach can backfire.

 

Many education-based interventions that provide information regarding stereotypes essentially suggest suppressing thoughts about negative stereotypes, which usually doesn’t work. For example, try not to think about a pink elephant — what are you thinking about now? Further, teaching groups about stereotype threat may serve to activate these same threats later7. Even explicit focus on positive age-related stereotypes can end up reinforcing antiquated beliefs — both negative and positive3.

 

Research has shown that as we get older, we increasingly perceive ourselves to feel younger than our chronological age11. These perceptions may shield us from negative stereotypes. In fact, some older people do not identify themselves as a member of their chronological age group; a term called “age-group dissociation.”

 

Age-group dissociation may:

  • protect older people from applying negative age stereotypes to themselves,
  • reinforce their feelings of being more youthful than their chronological age, and
  • expand their sense of future time left11.

 

However, there also may be unfavorable effects of age-group dissociation. Older people who do not view themselves as such may not complete important tasks, such as writing advanced directives11. In other words, age-group dissociation probably is not an entirely satisfactory response to negative stereotypes about getting older.

 

On a more positive note, recent research suggests that self-compassion may be key to developing more balanced beliefs about one’s status as an older person2,8. Using self-compassion to blunt the effect of negative aging stereotypes in older people is a relatively new strategy, although self-compassion and the related constructs of self-acceptance and self-love are not new6. Self-compassion can be defined as unconditional care towards oneself when one is going through difficult times8.

 

Phillips and Ferguson8 found that higher self-compassion was linked with more positive affect and a greater sense of personal wholeness and meaning in older people. Similarly, greater self-compassion in middle-aged women was associated with more positive attitudes towards aging2. Helping older people nurture self-compassion may be a better way to reduce the influence of negative aging beliefs on older people than a direct attack on those stereotypes.

 

References:

1Brooks, M., Bichard, S., & Craig, C. (2016). What’s the score?: A content analysis of mature adults in Super Bowl commercials. Howard Journal of Communications27(4), 347-366. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10646175.2016.1206046

2Brown, L., Bryant, C., Brown, V., Bei, B., & Judd, F. (2015). Self-compassion, attitudes to ageing and indicators of health and well-being among midlife women. Aging & Mental Health20(10), 1035-1043. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13607863.2015.1060946

3Kay, A., Day, M., Zanna, M., & Nussbaum, A. (2013). The insidious (and ironic) effects of positive stereotypes. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology49(2), 287-291. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2012.11.003

4Kotter-Grühn, D. (2015). changing negative views of aging: implications for intervention and translational research. Annual Review Of Gerontology And Geriatrics35(1), 167-186. http://dx.doi.org/10.1891/0198-8794.35.167

5Levy, B., Chung, P., Bedford, T., & Navrazhina, K. (2014). Facebook as a site for negative age stereotypes. The Gerontologist54(2), 172-176. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/geront/gns194

6Muris, P., & Petrocchi, N. (2016). Protection or vulnerability? A meta-analysis of the relations between the positive and negative components of self-compassion and psychopathology. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/cpp.2005

7Nelson, T. (2015). Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination (2nd ed.). New York: Psychology Press, Taylor & Francis Group.

8Phillips, W., & Ferguson, S. (2012). Self-compassion: a resource for positive aging. The Journals Of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences And Social Sciences68(4), 529-539. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbs091

9Trentham, B., Sokoloff, S., Tsang, A., & Neysmith, S. (2015). Social media and senior citizen advocacy: an inclusive tool to resist ageism? Politics, Groups, And Identities3(3), 558-571. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21565503.2015.1050411

10Turner, R., Crisp, R., & Lambert, E. (2007). Imagining intergroup contact can improve intergroup attitudes. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations10(4), 427-441. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1368430207081533

11Weiss, D., & Lang, F. (2012). “They” are old but “I” feel younger: Age-group dissociation as a self-protective strategy in old age. Psychology and Aging27(1), 153-163. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0024887

 

Biographies:

 

Jeff McCarthy is a PhD candidate in the Clinical Neuropsychology program at the University of Windsor in Ontario. His clinical and research interests involve incorporating technology, therapeutic assessment, and a focus on everyday functioning into neuropsychological rehabilitation and management of neuropsychology disorders. He also has an explicit focus on prospective memory and its function in both healthy adults and in those with acquired brain injury and memory impairment.

 

Dr. Anne Baird is an Associate Professor on the Clinical Neuropsychology track in the Psychology Department at the University of Windsor in Ontario. She has a long-standing research and clinical interest in understanding and supporting everyday function and problem-solving in normal and cognitively-impaired older people.

 

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