Implications of Self-Stereotyping

Older adults are typically aware that although people hold positive and negative stereotypes about their age group, the negative stereotypes shape the predominant view (Kite and Johnson, 1988). Unlike some stigmatized groups, however, older adults often endorse these negative stereotypes and views of aging (Heckhausen, Dixon, and Baltes, 1989; Hummert et al., 1994; Kite et al., 1991). For instance, Hummert and colleagues (1994) found that the negative perceptions of older adults (e.g., despondent, socially isolated, physically and psychologically impaired) among older, middle-aged, and young adults do not differ substantially. Additionally, Luszcz (1983, 1985-1986) found that older adults viewed other older adults as less likable, more depressed, and more dependent than middle-aged adults.

Although older adults share many of the same stereotypes of aging and of older adults as others, their overall perception of the category “old” is more complex than that held by others. Older adults use a greater variety of traits to describe older people, and have more subcategories of older people than do younger adults (Brewer and Lui, 1984; Heckhausen et al., 1989). The findings are mixed, however, regarding whether this differentiation includes more positive or negative subcategories. Hummert and colleagues (1994) found that older adults’ subcategories were just as likely to include negative as well as positive stereotypes. By contrast, other researchers find that these subcategories tend to include more positive descriptions (Harris, 1975; Kite et al., 1991). Brewer and Lui (1984) found that older adults identify with one of the positive subtypes, thus differentiating themselves from negative subtypes.

Despite the finding that older adults, on average, hold unfavorable attitudes about the category “old” that are similar to those held by others, there are individual differences in the extent to which older adults hold these negative views, and these differences in self-perceptions have been found to predict important health outcomes. For instance, older adults with more positive self-perceptions and views of aging have better physical health and better survival rates than those with more negative self-perceptions and views, even after controlling for appropriate variables such as gender and socioeconomic status (Levy, Slade, and Kasl, 2002; Levy, Slade, Kunkel, and Kasl, 2002). Similarly, negative views about aging predict low self-esteem and high levels of depression among older adults (Bengtson, Reedy, and Gordon, 1985; Coleman, Aubin, Ivani-Chalian, Robinson, and Briggs, 1993). Taken together, this research suggests that negative views of aging and negative self-stereotyping may be harmful to individuals’ health.

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