It is true that as people age, their mental acuity declines. However, that decline is typically exaggerated by stereotypes about forgetful old people and their “senior moments.” New research out of the USC Davis School of Gerontology found that reminding older adults about their mental decline aggravates existing symptoms.
The researchers—both professors of gerontology and psychology at USC—performed two experiments with subjects aged 59 to 79. One group was asked to read a fake news article about the effects of aging and then take a memory test. The other group only took the memory test. The researchers added an extra incentive to the test: half of the participants would receive monetary rewards for each word they remembered, but the other half would lose money for every word they forgot.
The results showed that when the participants stood to earn money, the aging stereotypes affected performance negatively; the news-reading group was worse at earning rewards than the non-news reading group. However, the inverse also held true: when faced with preventing loss, the people who had been exposed to aging stereotypes did better on the memory test.
This is part of a body of research about stereotype threat—the concept that people internalize stereotypes associated with their group and self-handicap, thus causing the stereotypes to be true. Although research in the past has studied older adults vis-à-vis stereotype threat, this was the first research to investigate how stereotype threat could benefit older adults.
“Stereotype threat is generally thought to be a bad thing, and it is well established that it can impair older adults’ memory performance. However, our experiments demonstrate that stereotype threat can actually enhance older adults’ memory if the task involves avoiding losses,” explained Sarah Barber, postdoctoral researcher at the USC Davis School and the study’s lead author.
Although older adults are harmed by negative stereotypes about their cognitive abilities when trying to gain something, it seems that these stereotypes can help them when they are working to avoid or mitigate loss. This research suggests that early intervention can ameliorate the effects of aging. Additionally, anyone who works with older adults should be cautious about attributing forgetfulness to aging.
This study is in the forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.