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The detrimental influence of negative stereotypes

Old people are: needy, unhappy, senile, inactive, can’t learn new things and less useful their younger counterparts. These statements are stereotypes.  Stereotypes are a set of beliefs which shape the way we think and behave in everyday life. However, negative stereotypes, such as the ones above, have an adverse effect on older people. Not only do they interfere with older people’s enjoyment and flourishing in the latter part of life but they also have a detrimental impact on people’s health and well-being as they age.

Stereotypes about ageing are acquired years before people become old and this is why they are often subtle and hidden from view. In other words, they become embedded and taken for granted. For example, in one research project young people who were shown a sign with a graphic of old people then walked slower down the corridor than those who didn’t see the sign.

Many studies have been carried out which support the idea that stereotypes have a direct link to health and well-being.  For example, Becca Levy and her colleagues at Yale University found that older people who hold negative stereotypes about themselves (e.g. viewing themselves as senile as opposed to wise) display a more negative response to stress, have lower self-efficacy and  impaired cognitive function, and are more likely to have a negative view of other old people. Not only did Levy et al find that negative stereotypes affected performance and attitudes, but they also found that these beliefs contributed to serious illness and even death. Their research shows that people who held negative stereotypes of ageing refuse life-prolonging interventions and that their negative views directly affects their will to live, meaning in life, and ultimately their mortality.

The good news is that holding positive views of ageing has a beneficial impact on people. For example, Levy et al found that holding positive views about ageing increased life expectancy by about 7.6 years.  This added more years to life than: low blood pressure, low cholesterol, not smoking and not taking regular exercise  - these only add one or two years of life expectancy.

In addition to this, work carried out at Harvard University by Ellen Langer and colleagues reveals that you can directly influence people’s perception of themselves and, even switch their mindset, by changing the environment around them. Langer created a research project which took participants back to a previous era. She managed to convince a group of elderly men that the year was actually 1959. She recreated this time period down to the last details through music, clothing, newspapers and foods from that year.  Langer encouraged the men to visualise and talk as if they were back living in the 50s.  What she found was that these men showed physical and psychological improvements. Over the course of a week, signs of ageing appeared to reverse and the men looked visibly younger. Their joints became more flexible, their posture straightened, and the lengths of their fingers, which typically shorten with age, actually increased.

Other studies have looked at a variety of different activities which challenge negative, ageist stereotypes such as giving older people some control over their environment, or encouraging them to give their time to help others. What this research has found is that these types of activities not only provide meaning in life but extend it too. These activities also challenge the stereotypes that old people are incapable and needy.

Research shows that older people continue to grow and demonstrate strengths. For example, older people are less likely to be clinically depressed and are more emotionally balanced. Even though they have fewer acquaintances, older people are more satisfied with their relationships and feel stronger bonds to close friends and family members. They are better at taking many different perspectives and they view conflict in their relationships as less negative than younger people do.

All of this research suggests that stereotypes are inaccurate and can be damaging.  Not only do they have a direct impact on motivation and performance, but they influence health and longevity.  These stereotypes begin to influence people’s perceptions a long time before the ageing process sets in and can leave people feeling pessimistic about the future as well as stifled when they reach old age.

Stereotypes of ageing exist despite the fact that people are now living longer, healthier and more productive lives. Research shows that these ageist stereotypes are just not an accurate reflection of reality. Professor Felicia Huppert, from Cambridge University, an expert on ageing, suggests that society’s structures and attitudes are not keeping abreast of the new reality of ageing. Positive Psychology is helping to challenge peoples' views of the old and of ageing, by questioning these taken for granted assumptions.

Holding negative perceptions of the ageing process is not a minor problem as it impacts upon many areas of life such as motivation, mental health, physical health and even mortality. This means that negative stereotyping is no trivial issue. And it is becoming more important: average life expectancy is now around 80, and the average retirement age 61. This means that people are likely to spend around a quarter of their life in retirement and thus ‘old’ in others’ eyes.

References

Devine, P. G. (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 5-18.

Huppert, F. A. (2004) A population approach to positive psychology: the potential for population interventions to promote well-being and prevent disorder. In Positive Psychology in practice (ed. P. A. Linley & S. Joseph), pp. 693–
709. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley)

Langer, E. Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1989. (Translated into thirteen languages)

Levy, B.(1996). Improving memory in old age by implicit self stereotyping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 1092–1107

Levy, B. R., Ashman. O., Dror. I. (2000)To be or not to be: the effects of aging stereotypes on the will to live. OMEGA, Vol. 40 (3) 409 – 420.

Levy, B. R. and Myers, L.M. Preventive Health Behaviors Influenced by Self-perceptions of Aging. Preventive Medicine 39: 625-629, 2004.

Levy, B. R., Hausdorff, J., Hencke, R., & Wei, J. Y. (2000). Reducing cardiovascular stress with positive self-stereotypes of aging. Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 55, 205–213.

Levy, B.R., Slade, M.D., Kunkel, S.R., and Kasl, S.V. Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83: 261-270, 2002.

Levy, B., & Langer. E (1994) Aging free from negative sterotypes: Successful memory in China and among the American deaf.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 989 - 997

Rodin, J., Langer, J. E.(1997) Long-term effects of a control-relevant Intervention with the Institutionalized Aged.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 35, No12, 897-902

See New York Times article October 2006. Old but Frail: A matter of Heart and Head.

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