workers on the job and its harmful effects on employee satisfaction (Gordon et al., 2000; McMullin and Marshall, 2001) and ageist views of patients in a medical setting, who receive less aggressive medical treatment because their physical complaints are dismissed simply as signs of aging. In many settings, patronizing forms of communication are used with older adults despite the fact that it is viewed as debasing and disrespectful (see Hummert, 1999; Kemper, 1994; Ryan, Meredith, and Shantz, 1994). As noted by Richeson and Shelton (in this volume), negative stereotypes of age-related cognitive deficits are far more severe than the actual deficits. Those stereotypes may inhibit older people from attempting and actively participating in new activities or exercising their full potential.
A critical issue that emerges from these findings is the extent to which negative stereotypes affect the behavior of older adults in an everyday context. For example, negative stereotypes may not only affect the attributions of medical personnel regarding an older adult’s symptoms (i.e., viewing them as normal aging instead of as treatable conditions), but may also affect the older person’s understanding of what normal aging is. Thus, the older adult does not receive enough medical care or doesn’t want more medical care because of his or her own stereotypes about normal aging. Do older adults themselves overlook symptoms of disease because they view them as part of normal aging, when they should be taking these symptoms more seriously? Older adults’ perceived choices also need to be taken into account. Research should examine knowledge and individual choice on the part of older adults in making medical decisions (see Chapter 4).
Fortunately, positive stereotypes and attitudes toward aging can also affect how older adults are treated. For example, Erber and Szuchman (2002) found that a forgetful older adult is seen as having more desirable traits than a forgetful young adult. Similarly, in legal settings older witnesses are believed to be just as credible as younger witnesses despite older adults’ memory failures (Brimacombe, Jung, Garrioch, and Allison, 2003). Thus, despite perceptions of declining memory capacity on the part of older adults, they can still be viewed as credible or desirable. There is even a recent emergence in the mass media of positive stereotypes of aging, with older characters described as powerful, active, and healthy (Pasupathi and Löckenhoff, 2002).
What can be abstracted from these few studies is that the social context moderates perceptions and treatment of older adults. Research is needed to determine the degree to which age-differentiated perceptions of behavior are ageist, where they are prominent, and the extent to which behaviors distance and exclude older adults and the extent to which behaviors are beneficial and protective of older adults. For example, are ageist attitudes less prominent in interpersonal settings? Research is also needed to identify the conditions under which positive or negative stereotypes affect decisions