A Social Psychological Perspective on the Stigmatization of Older Adults
Jennifer A. Richeson
J. Nicole Shelton
There is mounting evidence to suggest that older adults constitute a stigmatized group in the United States (and in most Western societies). Indeed, youth is of such value in U.S. culture that efforts to stay young fuel a multibillion dollar industry. The prevailing view is “If I can buy enough pills, cream, and hair, I can avoid becoming old” (Esposito, 1987). Certainly, individuals’ efforts to avoid the near-certain, uncontrollable outcomes of old age (if one is lucky enough to survive) reveal the stigma and negative attitudes associated with advanced age. Similar to sexism or racism, “ageism” (Butler, 1969) refers to the negative attitudes, stereotypes, and behaviors directed toward older adults based solely on their perceived age. Evidence of ageism can be observed in any number of domains, including the workplace (e.g., Finkelstein, Burke, and Raju, 1995; McCann and Giles, 2002; Rosen and Jerdee, 1976) and health care facilities (e.g., Caporael and Culbertson, 1986; DePaola, Neimeyer, Lupfer, and Feidler, 1992). For instance, age discrimination in the workplace, such as mandatory retirement ages, led to the inclusion of age as a protected category with the Age Employment Discrimination Act of 1967. More subtle ageist behavior can be found in the expectancies that doctors hold regarding the capabilities of older individuals, attitudes that in turn shape treatment recommendations and decisions (e.g., Adelman, Greene, and Charon, 1991; Greene, Adelman, Charon, and Hoffman, 1986).
There have been numerous reviews of the literature from various fields documenting the differential, and sometimes expressively negative, treatment of older adults in many social domains (see Nelson, 2002). We do not
repeat this information, but rather attempt to integrate that work with the emerging literature on the social psychology of stigma. Using a social-psychological approach, we explore the literature on age stigma with respect to both potential perpetrators (society, younger adults) and potential targets (older adults).1 Specifically, in the first section we review the literature on perceivers of older adults—namely, younger adults—and their stereotypes, attitudes, and behaviors vis-à-vis older individuals. In the second section we focus on the targets—older adults—and their self-concepts, self-stereotyping, and coping in the face of ageism.
AGE STIGMA FROM THE PERCEIVER’S PERSPECTIVE
Chronological age, similar to sex and race, is a dimension on which individuals categorize others rather automatically (Brewer, 1988; Fiske, 1998). Cues to age are perceived from physical appearance, such as hair and facial morphology, as well as from verbal and nonverbal aspects of individuals’ communications (Bieman-Copland and Ryan, 2001; Hummert, Garstka, and Shaner, 1997; Montepare and Zebrowitz-McArthur, 1988). Upon presentation of these cues, age is readily perceived, perhaps even unconsciously, often shaping interactions between younger and older individuals. For instance, younger individuals often use stereotypes associated with advanced age to make inferences regarding older adults’ intentions, goals, wishes, and capacities and guide their behavior accordingly. First we examine the perceptions, attitudes, and stereotypes associated with older adults. Next, we consider the ways in which these stereotypes and attitudes shape behavior toward older adults. Last, we investigate potential directions for future research that may eventually change ageist stereotypes and attitudes.
Attitudes and Stereotypes
In general, individuals express predominantly negative attitudes and beliefs toward older adults, especially in comparison to their attitudes to-
ward younger people. The difference between the attitudes of young and old is particularly pronounced when the general category of “older adults” is being considered rather than specific exemplars (Kite and Johnson, 1988; Palmore, 1990; see also Kite and Wagner, 2002, for a review). Numerous studies show, however, that older adults are not always perceived as a homogeneous group (Braithwaite, Gibson, and Holman, 1986; Brewer, Dull, and Lui, 1981; Brewer and Lui, 1984; Hummert, 1990; Hummert, Garstka, Shaner, and Strahm, 1994; Schmidt and Boland, 1986). The broad category of “older adults” consists of as few as three and as many as twelve subtypes (Hummert et al., 1994). Some work suggests that a large subset of older adults is perceived as “senior citizens” who are vulnerable, often lonely, physically and mentally impaired, and old-fashioned (Brewer et al., 1981). But at least two positive subtypes of older adults have also emerged in this work. The “perfect grandmother” subtype consists of women who are kind, serene, trustworthy, nurturing, and helpful. The “elder statesman” subtype consists of men who are competent, intelligent, aggressive, competitive, and intolerant. In addition to these, other well-replicated subtypes include the “golden ager,” the shrew/curmudgeon, the John Wayne conservative, and the severely impaired (Hummert et al., 1994; Schmidt and Boland, 1986). The research on subtypes thus suggests that perceptions of older adults are both complex and differentiated, including both positive and negative exemplars.
The heterogeneity in attitudes and stereotypes toward different older adult subtypes has given rise to spirited debate as to whether ageism really exists. If perceptions about certain subtypes are positive, how can there be negative attitudes toward the group? Research conducted by Neugarten (1974) distinguishing between the “young-old” (i.e., individuals between 55 and 75 years old) and the “old-old” (i.e., individuals 75 years old and older) offers one explanation. Neugarten suggested that many of society’s negative stereotypes about older people (e.g., being sick, poor, slow, miserable, disagreeable, and sexless) are based on observations of the old-old, and that these observations get overgeneralized to the young-old. Recent empirical investigations of this hypothesis suggest that various subtypes of older people reflect differences in chronological age (Hummert, 1990, 1994; Hummert, Garstka, Shaner, and Strahm, 1995). For instance, Hummert (1994) presented college students with photographs of older men and women whose facial features suggested three age ranges: young-old (55-64), middle-old (65-74), and old-old (75 years and over). Results revealed that physiognomic cues to advanced age (e.g., eye droop, wrinkled vs. smooth skin, grey hair) led to differing perceptions and stereotypes. Consistent with predictions, participants tended to pair photographs of young-old individuals with positive stereotypes, and to pair photographs of old-old individuals with negative stereotypes. This work suggests that the more
positive subtypes of old age may be associated primarily with individuals in the early stages of older adulthood.
A different perspective on the heterogeneity of stereotypes of older adults stems from recent research finding that although certain subtypes of older adults are viewed more positively than others, positive stereotypes can also manifest in attitudes that are not positive (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, and Xu, 2002). Fiske and colleagues (2002) argue that stereotypes of most social groups cluster on two dimensions—competence and warmth. Out-groups are perceived as high on one dimension but not the other, and in some cases they are perceived as low on both. Attitudes, emotions, and behaviors regarding out-groups are thought to follow these relative warmth and competence judgments (Fiske et al., 2002). Consider, for instance, the “perfect grandmother” subtype. Grandmothers are perceived positively as warm and likable, but they are also perceived as cognitively incompetent (Cuddy and Fiske, 2002). Low cognitive competence coupled with relatively high warmth results in pity, and, accordingly, grandmothers (and those perceived as grandmotherly) tend to be disrespected and denied opportunities in many domains. This type of research reveals the complexity of the relative positivity and negativity of various older adult subtypes, and the issue of ageism more generally.
Such variety in perceptions and subtypes of older adults suggests that there is not complete consensus regarding who belongs in the category or, by extension, what characteristics the members of the category possess. Nevertheless, research indicates that there are some consistent stereotypes of older individuals that shape perceptions. At the most general category level, older adults are stereotyped as deficient interpersonally, physically, and cognitively (e.g., Pasupathi, Carstensen, and Tsai, 1995). That is, older adults are expected to be slow or poor thinkers, movers, and talkers. Because age-related changes in cognitive function have been documented (Baltes, Lindenberger, and Staudinger, 1998; Salthouse, Hambrick, and McGuthry, 1998; Schaie, 1994), the “kernel of truth” in these stereotypes affords them particular strength. However, research taking more ecologically valid, adaptive approaches to the study of age-related cognitive differences suggests that stereotypes of cognitive functioning in older age are more severe than most actual deficits and, furthermore, that the stereotypes largely mask age-related cognitive performance gains (e.g., Adams, Labouvie-Vief, Hobart, and Dorosz, 1990; Blanchard-Fields and Chen, 1996; Colonia-Willner, 1998).
Forgetfulness. Among stereotypes about cognitive abilities, one of the most
pernicious is forgetfulness (Bieman-Copland and Ryan, 1998; Ryan, Bieman-Copland, Kwong See, Ellis, and Anas, 2002). Erber and colleagues have conducted numerous studies regarding the forgetfulness stereotype (e.g., Erber, 1989; Erber, Caiola, and Pupo, 1994; Erber, Szuchman, and Prager, 2001; Erber, Szuchman, and Rothberg, 1990a, 1990b). The stereotype is widely held by both young and old (Parr and Siegert, 1993; Ryan, 1992), and is readily applied to explain “forgetful” behavior by older adults (Erber et al., 1994). Even identical behavior by older and younger individuals is attributed to mental deterioration for the older target but not the younger (Erber et al., 1990a, 1990b). In fact, rude and sometimes even criminal behavior on the part of older adults that can be attributed to forgetfulness tends to be excused as such (Erber et al., 2001). In general, the research suggests that older adults are thought to be forgetful due to biological changes associated with aging and therefore are not held accountable for forgetful behavior (e.g., missing an appointment, forgetting a birthday). Although this research reveals a potential benefit of being stereotyped as forgetful (i.e., lack of accountability for breaking social norms), the costs of the forgetfulness stereotype in other domains (e.g., the workplace) may outweigh the potential benefits.
Mental incompetence. Stereotypes about other mental capabilities of older adults have also been found to influence younger adults’ interpretation of ambiguous events (Carver and de la Garza, 1984; Franklyn-Stokes, Harriman, Giles, and Coupland, 1988; Rubin and Brown, 1975; see also Giles, Coupland, Coupland, Williams, and Nussbaum, 1992, for a review). In these studies young adult participants read a brief description of a car accident involving a motorist of either one of two ages (22 or 84; Carver and de la Garza, 1984) or one of five ages (22, 54, 64, 74, or 84; Franklyn-Stokes et al., 1988). Participants were asked to rank order a set of provided questions that they would ask the motorist in order to discern the cause of the accident. In both studies, participants sought out stereotype-consistent information to shape their inquiries. Specifically, participants ranked statements about the motorist’s physical, mental, and sensory state as more diagnostic the older the perceived age of the motorist, and they ranked alcohol consumption as more diagnostic the younger the perceived age of the motorist. In Franklyn-Stokes et al. (1988), the trends both for the motorist’s capacity and for alcohol were linear, suggesting that ageist information seeking may take place “throughout the life span and [be] well grounded in middle age” (p. 420). This work suggests that stereotypes of older adults, similar to stereotypes of other groups, influence information processing, shaping what is both attended to and remembered about particular older adult targets (e.g., Hense, Penner, and Nelson, 1995).
Implicit or Unconscious Attitudes and Stereotypes
A growing body of research in social cognition suggests that individuals’ attitudes and beliefs concerning various social groups (e.g., race, gender) can be activated without conscious awareness of the activation (e.g., Bargh and Chartrand, 1999; Fazio and Olson, 2003). Fazio, Jackson, Dunton, and Williams (1995) demonstrated, for instance, the automatic activation of racial attitudes. Specifically, white participants responded faster to negative target adjectives when they were preceded by primes that were photographs of blacks than when they were preceded by photographs of whites. Presumably, because participants held relatively negative attitudes toward blacks, it was easier for them to process, and therefore respond to, adjectives that were also negative (i.e., congruent with the valence of the racial prime).
Perdue and Gurtman (1990) found a similar reaction time bias when evaluating words that were primed with the words “young” or “old”: individuals took longer to identify positive words when presented after the word “old” than when presented after the word “young.” Differential automatic evaluations of racial, gender, and age groups have also been detected using a method developed by Greenwald and his colleagues (the Implicit Association Test, or IAT) (Dasgupta and Greenwald, 2001; Dasgupta, McGhee, Greenwald, and Banaji, 2000; Greenwald, McGhee, and Schwartz, 1998; Hummert, Garstka, O’Brien, Greenwald, and Mellott, 2002; Nosek, Banaji, and Greenwald, 2002). Specifically, both young and older participants have been found to associate “pleasant” words more readily with pictures of younger adults than with pictures of older adults (Hummert et al., 2002; Nosek et al., 2002.) The differential ease with which pleasantness is associated with young rather than old reflects an automatic age bias against older adults (see Levy and Banaji, 2002, for a review).
Like stereotypes, attitudes about older adults also differ depending on the subtype brought to mind (Hummert, 1990; Schmidt and Boland, 1986). For instance, a recent study found that the “perfect grandparent” subtype yielded less automatic age bias than either the general category “the elderly” or the negative “old curmudgeon” subtype (Jelenec and Steffens, 2002). Interestingly, the general category of “the elderly” yielded attitudes as negative as the curmudgeon subtype, suggesting that many younger individuals may automatically think of negative subtypes when generating attitudes about older adults. Consistent with this hypothesis, recent work finds that young perceivers view negative exemplars of the older adult category to be more typical (more like older adults in general) than positive exemplars (Chasteen, 2000; Chasteen and Lambert, 1997; but see also Hummert, 1990).
Gender Differences. Although only a few studies have considered the effect of target sex or gender in perceptions of older individuals, beliefs about older women and men appear to differ at least on some dimensions (Canetto, Kaminski, and Felicio, 1995; Kite, Deaux, and Miele, 1991; Kogan and Mills, 1992; but see also O’Connell and Rotter, 1979). Sontag (1979) suggested that there is a double standard of aging in that women are judged more harshly than men, and some support for this view has been found in the ages selected for the onset of older adult status for men and women (e.g., Dravenstedt, 1976; Zepelin, Sills, and Heath, 1986-1987) as well as in attractiveness ratings (Deutch, Zalenski, and Clarke, 1986). In a study of stereotyping, Hummert and colleagues (1997) also found gender differences. Perceivers associated positive stereotypes with photographs of “young-old” and “middle-old” women less than with similarly aged men, but they associated “old-old” men with positive stereotypes less often than for similarly aged women.
In contrast to this work, O’Connell and Rotter (1979) found little evidence that gender interacts with age in shaping evaluations of older adults. Specifically, they found that 25- and 55-year-old men were rated as more competent than women of those ages, but there were no differences in the competence judgments of 75-year-old men and women. Taken together, these studies suggest that future research is necessary to elucidate how age and gender may interact to shape perceptions. Similarly, there is a dearth of research examining the combined effects of age and other basic categories (e.g., race, sexual orientation) on stereotypes of and attitudes about older adults. It is likely that the combination of these factors, rather than age alone, shapes attitudes and behavior toward individuals (e.g., Conway-Turner, 1995).
Behavior Toward Older Adults
Stereotypes such as forgetfulness and mental deficiency generate negative expectancies for older adults that often translate into behavior with respect to housing availability, in the workplace, during medical encounters, and perhaps even with family and friends. As are racial minorities, older adults are susceptible to housing discrimination. One study found, for example, that rooms previously advertised as available for rent were more likely to be described as unavailable when an older person inquired about availability than when a younger person made the inquiry (Page, 1997). Even children have been found to discriminate against older adults (Isaacs and Bearison, 1986). Children (ages 4, 6, or 8) were asked to work on a jigsaw puzzle with either an old (age 75) or a young (age 35) confederate. Results revealed that the children sat farther away from, made less eye contact with, spoke fewer words to, initiated less conversation with, and
asked for less help from the older confederate compared to the younger confederate.
There is also evidence that older adults face discriminatory treatment in medical encounters with both nurses and physicians. Perhaps because these professionals consistently see some of the most impaired older adults, negative attitudes toward older adults in general are common among health care workers (e.g., DePaola et al., 1992; Kahana and Kiyak, 1984; Penner, Ludenia, and Mead, 1984; Sherman, Roberto, and Robinson, 1996). The impact of these negative attitudes can be found in the treatment of nursing home residents (Baltes, 1988; Baltes, Burgess, and Stewart, 1980) and in physicians’ diagnoses of older adults’ medical problems (Adelman et al., 1991; Adelman, Greene, Charon, and Friedman, 1992; Greene et al., 1986; Greene, Adelman, Charon, and Friedman, 1989; Lasser, Siegel, Dukoff, and Sunderland, 1988). For instance, depression often goes unnoticed in older adults or gets misdiagnosed as dementia (Lamberty and Bieliauskas, 1993), and older adults with acute and chronic pain are sometimes mistreated (Gagliese and Melzack, 1997) or overlooked for preventive measures such as routine screenings because of physicians’ beliefs about the course of normal aging (Derby, 1991). Negative beliefs among medical care workers are particularly worrisome in that expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies (Learman, Avorn, Everitt, and Rosenthal, 1990).
These studies present just a few domains in which older adults may face discrimination (see Pasupathi and Lockenhoff, 2002, for a review). However, not all behavior that differs between young and older adults is discriminatory, making the issue of distinguishing between discriminatory and appropriately differentiated behavior rather complex. In order to develop interventions that reduce harm to, but maximize benefits for, older adults, disambiguating negative discriminatory and beneficial age-differentiated behavior is of paramount importance. In the section that follows, we present the case of disentangling patronizing from accommodating intergenerational communications in order to reveal the nuances associated with many forms of age-differentiated behavior.
Patronizing Versus Accommodating Speech
Research on intergenerational interactions suggests that negative stereotypes and attitudes toward older adults can manifest in patronizing behavior (Hummert, Shaner, Garstka, and Henry, 1998; Ruscher, 2001; Williams and Nussbaum, 2001). One form of patronizing behavior is known as secondary baby talk or elderspeak (Caporael, 1981; Culbertson and Caporael, 1983; Kemper, Finter-Urczyk, Ferrell, Harden, and Billington, 1998). Elderspeak is a simplified speech register that is characterized by slowed speech with exaggerated intonation, higher pitch, simpli-
fied grammar, limited vocabulary, and the use of short sentences (Caporael and Culbertson, 1986; Kemper, 1994). Elderspeak has been observed in a number of naturalistic settings, such as residential care facilities for older adults (Ashburn and Gordon, 1981; Caporael and Culbertson, 1986; see Ryan, Hummert, and Boich, 1995, for a review), as well as in laboratory interactions between young and older adults (e.g., Kemper, Vandeputte, Rice, Cheung, and Gubarchuk, 1995; Thimm, Rademacher, and Kruse, 1998).
Patronizing behaviors can reveal ageism insofar as they communicate to older adults that they are no longer the equals of middle-aged adults and therefore their opinions, capabilities, and choices are unworthy of serious consideration (Caporael and Culbertson, 1986; Kemper, 1994; Ryan, Hamilton, and Kwong See, 1994). Indeed, research has linked elderspeak and similar speech accommodations with the speakers’ beliefs about the functional ability of older adults (Caporael, Lukaszewski, and Culbertson, 1983) and with their holding negative stereotypical perceptions of older adult listeners (Hummert et al., 1998; Thimm et al., 1998). Furthermore, the use of baby talk with high-functioning older adults has been found to have negative consequences, such as lower self-esteem (O’Connor and Rigby, 1996), feelings of humiliation and dependency (Caporael et al., 1983; Ryan et al., 1994), and increased feelings of communicative incompetence (Kemper et al., 1995). For instance, older adults who participated in a communication task with young adults who used elderspeak reported that they experienced more communication problems during the interaction and were more likely to perceive themselves as cognitively impaired (Kemper et al., 1995; Kemper, Othick, Gerhing, Gubarchuk, and Billington, 1998; Kemper, Othick, Warren, Gubarchuk, and Gerhing, 1996). This work suggests that the misapplication of stereotypes about old age to high-functioning older adults can have deleterious consequences for those individuals’ actual level of functioning and mental health.
Similar to the issues underlying the “kernel of truth” of competence stereotypes, elderspeak is ambiguous in that there seem to be both costs and benefits (Caporael et al., 1983; Cohen and Faulkner, 1986; Kemper et al., 1995, 1996). Kemper and colleagues (1995) found that when younger adults spontaneously used elderspeak during a task that involved providing older adults with verbal instructions for finding a destination on a map, their older adult participants benefited in the form of improved task performance. And using a form of elderspeak with older adults suffering from Alzheimer’s disease has been found to improve communication between caregivers and patients (Ripich, 1994). Given the negative psychosocial but positive performance consequences of elderspeak, Ryan and colleagues (1995) argued that there exists a “communicative predicament of aging” (p. 1). Specifically, elderspeak directed to high-functioning older adults is
perceived as patronizing and seems to decrease their perceived communicative self-efficacy, but failure to use some form of elderspeak may undermine the actual communicative efficacy of lower-functioning older adults.
In a series of elegant experiments, Kemper and her colleagues (1995, 1996, 1998a, 1998b, 1999) sought to examine the components of elderspeak that underlie the positive benefits of communication but are not accompanied by negative psychosocial consequences. This work finds that providing semantic elaborations and simplifying speech by reducing the use of subordinate embedded clauses, but not by shortening speech segments, results in better performance by older adults (Kemper and Harden, 1999). Using short sentences, speaking in a slow rate, and using a high pitch do not benefit older adults, and instead result in negative self-perceptions as well as negative perceptions of the speaker by the older adult (Kemper and Harden, 1999). This work suggests that there is a form of elderspeak that is not perceived as condescending or patronizing and that is an appropriate and beneficial accommodation for healthy older adults. Similarly, older adults with Alzheimer’s disease may also reveal improved performance on communication tasks with some but not all aspects of elderspeak. Small, Kemper, and Lyons (1997) found, for instance, that repeating and paraphrasing sentences improved patients’ sentence comprehension, but saying the sentences more slowly did not.
Clearly this research has important practical implications for caregivers, family members, and researchers. Treatment and diagnosis disparities (e.g., misdiagnosed pain, depression) could stem from ineffective physician-patient communication (Grant, 1996; Greene et al., 1986; Lagana and Shanks, 2002; Radecki, Kane, Solomon, and Mendenhall, 1988; Revenson, 1989; but see also Hooper, Comstock, Goodwin, and Goodwin, 1982). This work also highlights the need for research to disambiguate stereotypes from actual group differences, in order to develop interventions that address actual needs without reinforcing group stereotypes and that therefore are not rejected as patronizing. Other age-differentiated behaviors must also be examined with similar scrutiny in order to disambiguate discrimination from beneficial differentiation.
Given the aforementioned research suggesting that older adults constitute a devalued group in U.S. society and culture, it is fitting to devote some attention to potential interventions. In the research literature on racial prejudice and intergroup conflict, increased contact between members of different groups has been heralded as the “gold standard” route to prejudice reduction (Allport, 1954; Pettigrew and Tropp, 2000). However, research examining the impact of intergenerational contact on attitudes to-
ward older adults has yielded mixed results (Lutsky, 1980). Some work finds that frequent contact with an older adult person leads to more positive attitudes toward older adults more generally (Cummings, Williams, and Ellis, 2003; Gatz, Popkin, Pino, and VandenBos, 1984; Hale, 1998). For instance, children in daily contact with older adults at their preschool were found to hold positive attitudes toward older adults, whereas children without such contact held vague or indifferent attitudes (Caspi, 1984). In contrast, other studies have found either no relationship or a negative relationship between contact frequency and the positivity of attitudes toward older adults (Ivester and King, 1977). Consistent with revisions to Allport’s original contact hypothesis, however, most research suggests that quality of contact, rather than frequency, predicts subsequent attitudes (Knox, Gekoski, and Johnson, 1986). This suggests that greater, positive intergenerational contact is a promising route to the reduction of negative stereotypes, attitudes, and discrimination. Consequently, additional research on the dynamics of intergenerational interactions that foster positive contact experiences is essential (e.g., Coupland, Coupland, Giles, Henwood, and Wiemann, 1988; Giles, Fox, Harwood, and Williams, 1994).
A different approach to reducing negative attitudes and stereotypes concerning older adults can be drawn from recent work examining the effects of exposure to atypical or counterstereotypical older adults (e.g., Duval, Ruscher, Welsh, and Catanese, 2000). For example, Dasgupta and Greenwald (2001) found that young adult participants revealed less automatic age bias if they had recently been exposed to admired older adult exemplars (e.g., Mother Theresa) and disliked young exemplars (e.g., Tonya Harding), compared to recent exposure to disliked older adult exemplars and admired young exemplars. Research in other domains finds similar results (e.g., Blair, Ma, and Lenton, 2001; Lowery, Hardin, and Sinclair, 2001; Rudman, Ashmore, and Gary, 2001). Specifically, imagining a capable woman reduced automatic gender stereotyping (Blair et al., 2001), and exposure to a black individual in a high-status, counterstereotypical role reduced whites’ automatic racial bias (Lowery et al., 2001; Richeson and Ambady, 2003). Taken together, this research suggests that exposure to atypical exemplars of stigmatized groups may reduce bias and stereotyping toward those groups.
Emerging Themes and Directions for Future Research
The research examined above suggests overwhelmingly that, although it is true that aging has certain negative consequences, people (namely, younger adults) who exhibit negative stereotypes, attitudes, and behavior toward older adults overestimate, overgeneralize, and overaccommodate the extent of actual impairments and difficulties. Even “positive” stereo-
types of older adults can manifest in patronizing behaviors and contribute to the inadequate treatment of older people (Cuddy and Fiske, 2002). In nearly every situation in which contact between older and younger adults is possible, if not required (e.g., workplace, health care, housing), research suggests that older adults face discrimination. Combating such widespread discrimination will require the concerted efforts of researchers in multiple disciplines and content areas, in collaboration with practitioners.
One dominant theme that emerges from the research reviewed is the complexity and “porous” nature of age categories: they are far more differentiated, permeable, and transient than many other social categories, like race. Fruitful avenues for future exploration are likely to arise from the fact that the young will eventually become old. For instance, does the fact that one will eventually join the stigmatized group influence the stereotyping process? Perhaps stereotyping of older adults is perceived as relatively more permissible because individuals expect to join the group. Or, rather, anxiety and apprehension associated with aging could exacerbate stereotyping and prejudice toward older people; indeed, some preliminary research suggests that this is the case (Chasteen, 2000). Future research should disambiguate and compare stereotypes about aging and stereotypes about older adults, if indeed these are dissociable constructs.
These future directions assume a motivational basis underlying stereotyping and prejudice, focusing on the potentially self-protective function of age bias (Snyder and Miene, 1994). By contrast, considerable research in social psychology suggests that stereotyping also serves the purpose of cognitive efficiency (Macrae, Milne, and Bodenhausen, 1994). In what ways are age stereotypes and perceptions cognitively efficient, especially given that they become more complex as individuals age (Hummert et al., 1994)? Does information processing proceed more smoothly and efficiently after knowing age information, as does other social category information? What cues to age are more likely to activate age stereotypes? Facial photographs? Speech patterns? How do occupational labels affect perceptions of older adult targets? The category of “older adults” is particularly complex and basic research should systematically examine the differences between older adult targets of varying ages (e.g., young-old, middle-old, and old-old).
Another important question is “How old is old?” As life expectancies increase, will the lower boundary of the older adult category also increase? Or will the category become increasingly differentiated, much like racial categories in Brazil? Furthermore, given the research on the association between chronological age and negative stereotypes, will perceptions of older adults become more negative as older adults get even older? Social psychology has failed to regularly include age categories in examinations of the basic processes of categorization, stereotype activation, and stereotype application. Such investigations are essential in order to understand how
age alone and in connection with other group memberships affects perception, cognition, and information processing. These investigations will also suggest interventions that can reduce stereotyping and prejudice against older adults.
A second theme emerging from the research is the importance of disambiguating behavior that stems from negative stereotypes from that which represents proper adaptations and accommodations to correlates of advanced age. This effort has been and will continue to be served by research that takes an adaptive approach to age differences in cognition, decoupling the myths and realities included in stereotypes of older adults and aging (e.g., Blanchard-Fields and Chen, 1996). The present review suggests, however, that much of this work on adaptive cognition has not yet penetrated many of the more robust negative stereotypes of older adults. Consequently, social psychological research on attitudes and attitude change may prove particularly important in communicating new findings about the actual capabilities of older adults to physicians, older-adult residential facility workers, employers, coworkers, and the general public. As with the problem of elderspeak, social psychologists, aging researchers, and practitioners can work together to devise messages, images, and interventions that provide accurate information about aging and older adults without promoting and reinforcing negative stereotypes.
Although the research on the attitudes of younger adults provides fruitful avenues for future investigations, research must also examine those of older adults as well. Consequently, the next section of our review examines the effects of age stigma on the self-perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors of older adults.
AGE STIGMA FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF OLDER ADULTS
In this section, we focus on older adults’ perspectives on aging. First, we examine the self-concept and identity of older adults. Next, we review the literature on self-stereotyping by older adults and its implications for mental and physical health. We then review the consequences of exposure to age stereotypes for older adults, considering cognitive, behavioral, and mental health outcomes. Last, we examine the coping strategies older adults use to contend with ageism.
Identity and Self-Concept
The self-concept refers to a set of concepts that individuals have about their physical, psychological, and social attributes. The self-concept involves individuals’ evaluations of who they are, including their evaluations of abilities, competencies, successes, and failures. How do older adults
respond when asked the question “Who am I?” Similarly, how do older adults perceive their future selves? Moreover, how do older adults experience and evaluate their lives? Are they satisfied or are they depressed?
One intriguing issue in this research area is that, although many older adults acknowledge that their chronological age is older than that of others, and older than in previous life stages, they do not consider themselves “old” (Linn and Hunter, 1979; Neugarten and Hagestad, 1976). Instead, they perceive themselves as “young.” Moreover, although older adults are more likely than college students to describe themselves in terms of ageist stereotypes, they are just as likely as college students to describe themselves in terms of youthful traits, like bold or impatient (Mueller, Wonderlich, and Dugan, 1986). The gap between actual and perceived age is also reflected in the fact that individuals select increasingly higher chronological ages as the onset of “old age” as they themselves get older (Seccombe and Ishii Kuntz, 1991). In other words, 65 no longer seems old when one is 60, compared to when one was 35.
Additional evidence of the disconnect between actual age and perceived age can be garnered from research employing implicit measures of group identification. Hummert and colleagues (2002) found, for example, that older adults associate self-related words (e.g., me, mine) with the category “young” more rapidly than they associate these words with the category “old.” Although such out-group identification could be viewed as maladaptive, the research suggests otherwise. Identifying with youth rather than old age is correlated with higher scores on tests of physical and emotional health (Hummert et al., 2002; Tuckman and Lavell, 1957). Thus, despite perceivers’ efforts to categorize older adults as old based on chronological age, many older adults eschew the label, and this resistance to such labeling seems to have positive consequences.
Although older adults do not always perceive themselves as old, chronological age predicts interesting differences between the self-views of younger and older adults. For instance, because older adults have had a lifetime to accumulate self-knowledge, they have a more secure and complex view of the self, compared to younger adults (Perlmutter, 1988). Moreover, there is considerable stability in self-perceptions and identity from mid-life to late life. Whitbourne and Sneed (2002) suggest that older adults are able to maintain a consistent identity by assimilating age-related changes into their existing self-concepts, and only shifting their self-views through a process called “accommodation” when assimilation is no longer possible. The balance between assimilation and accommodation results in an older adult who does not deny age-related changes and maintains a stable sense of self.
Debunking the misperception that old age is a stagnant developmental period, research on possible selves suggests that old age is a time when
people are still developing and expanding upon their identities. Older adults think not only about their past selves but also about possible future selves. Possible selves involve self-knowledge pertaining to one’s potential and future (Markus and Nurius, 1986). Possible selves represent both what people would like to become (“hoped-for” selves) and what they are afraid of becoming (“feared selves”; Cross and Markus, 1991). Possible selves are important because they guide people’s behaviors in terms of what activities and goals they approach or avoid. For example, if an older adult visualizes a possible self who is not financially dependent on his or her family, then the person may decide not to retire at the conventional retirement age. Possible selves are also important because they provide an interpretive context for the current self. For example, an older adult with a “financially independent” possible self will attach a different interpretation to moving in with his or her children than will an older adult without such a possible self.
Although research suggests that older adults tend to have fewer possible selves than young adults (Cross and Markus, 1991; Markus and Herzog, 1991), the possible selves they tend to hold reflect a variety of domains. Specifically, issues related to health, family, leisure, lifestyle, and independence influence common possible selves held by older adults (Frazier, Hooker, Johnson, and Kaus, 2000; Frazier, Johnson, Gonzalez, and Kafka, 2002; Waid and Frazier, 2003). Research indicates, furthermore, that health-related possible selves are the most prevalent visualized by older adults (Holahan, 1988; Hooker, 1992; Hooker and Kaus, 1992, 1994). Similarly, research suggests that older adults often focus desired possible selves on achievement in current roles, such as “being useful and able to help others,” and focus feared possible selves, by contrast, on interpersonal relationships and on physical health, such as “living in a nursing home” (Cross and Markus, 1991). The maintenance of healthy possible selves is a significant predictor of successful aging through the promotion of health-enhancing and health-protecting behaviors among older adults (Holahan, 1988; Hooker, 1992; Hooker and Kaus, 1992, 1994; Markus and Herzog, 1991).
Although older adults are less confident about achieving desired possible selves compared to younger adults (Cross and Markus, 1991), they tend to be more active in taking steps to bring about their most important desired selves and to prevent their most important feared selves from occurring (Cross and Markus, 1991). Because many of the possible selves held by older adults involve outcomes and circumstances that are not always under a person’s control (e.g., becoming a widow), realistic pessimism may be warranted and quite adaptive.
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.
Consequences of Exposure to Ageist Stereotypes
Recent research suggests that exposure to ageist stereotypes can affect the mental and physical health and capabilities of older adults. Levy, Hausdorff, Hencke, and Wei (2000) found that exposing older adults to negative age stereotypes at a subliminal level led to a heightened cardiovascular response (measured by systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, and heart rate) to the stress of mathematical and verbal challenges, compared to that of older adults exposed to positive stereotypes about aging. In addition, exposure to age stereotypes has been shown to influence older adults’ will to live (Levy, Ashman, and Dror, 1999-2000), walking speed (Hausdorff, Levy, and Wei, 1999), and handwriting (Levy, 2000). Specifically, the handwriting of older adults who had been subliminally primed with negative stereotypes of old age was judged to be older, shakier, and relatively more deteriorated than the handwriting of older adults who had been subliminally primed with positive age stereotypes (Levy, 2000).
The effects of exposure to age stereotypes have also been implicated in the performance of older adults on tests of memory (Hess, Auman, Colcombe, and Rahhal, 2003; Levy and Langer, 1994; Stein, Blanchard-Fields, and Herzog, 2002). For instance, Hess and colleagues (2003) found that concerns about negative age stereotypes can undermine older adults’ memory performance through stereotype threat effects (Steele, Spencer, and Aronson, 2002). That is, older adults who were explicitly exposed to the stereotype that older adults have memory impairments (threat condition) performed more poorly on a subsequent recall task, compared to older adults who were exposed either to more optimistic information about aging and memory or to no information. Consistent with stereotype threat theory (Steele et al., 2002), both the importance of memory performance to participants and the activation of the negative memory stereotype predicted the subsequent performance of participants in the threat condition.
Similarly, there is some initial research suggesting that more subtle or implicit exposure to negative age stereotypes may also undermine performance on some memory tests, compared to implicit exposure to either positive stereotypes (Levy, 1996) or stereotype-irrelevant words (Stein et al., 2002). Although these latter studies on implicit self-stereotyping are promising, Stein and colleagues (2002) caution against their overinterpretation or application given the small sample sizes, apparent fragility of the findings, and modest effect sizes. Consistent with this work, however, a cross-cultural study revealed that older adults from cultures in which aging is viewed more positively (i.e., China and the American deaf community) performed better on a memory test than did older American hearing individuals (Levy and Langer, 1994; but see also Yoon, Hasher, Feinberg, Rahhal, and Winocur, 2000). There were no differences, however, in the
memory performance among youth from the three cultures. Taken together, these findings suggest that being exposed to negative age stereotypes, or living in a culture that endorses the negative stereotypes, may undermine older adults’ ability to perform optimally on memory tests.
Taken as a whole, this research suggests that exposure to age stereotypes can influence older adults’ performance in a variety of domains. The findings are quite provocative when contrasted to the traditional views of aging that attribute the cognitive, psychological, and behavioral declines associated with advanced age exclusively to biological factors. Instead, this work suggests that negative stereotypes may explain some of the age-related variance in cognitive and physical task performance that has been attributed to biological differences (e.g., Baltes et al., 1998). It is important to note, however, that this line of research does not deny that there are biological changes associated with aging. Instead, it underscores the need to consider both biological and social/contextual factors in order to form a complete understanding of the age-related cognitive and behavioral changes that shape the life experiences and opportunities of older adults (e.g., Blanchard-Fields and Chen, 1996).
Coping with a Negative Age Identity
Despite the prevalence of negative self-relevant stereotypes, most older adults have a positive sense of subjective well-being (Haug, Belkgrave, and Gratton, 1984; Mroczek and Kolarz, 1998). Diener and Shuh (1998), for example, found that the later adult years are associated with increased feelings of life satisfaction. Similarly, Thunher (1983) found no changes in happiness during the 8 years following retirement, when the stigma of “too old” becomes salient. Moreover, Levy and Langer (1994) found that the self-esteem of American and Chinese older adults did not differ from that of young adults in those cultures. These findings are consistent with research on other stigmatized groups, such as blacks and women (Crocker and Major, 1989).
How do older adults maintain positive well-being in the face of stressors associated with aging? Research indicates that stigmatized individuals do not passively accept society’s negative stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination (Zebrowitz, 2003; see also Crocker, Major, and Steele, 1998; Miller and Major, 2000, for reviews). Instead they use a variety of strategies to respond to and cope with prejudice and stigma-related stress. Here, we use Miller and Meyers’ (1998) theoretical framework of compensatory strategies as a way to understand older adults’ strategies for coping with stigma-related stress. Miller and Meyers suggest that the strategies individuals use to cope with a devalued social identity can be categorized into two groups: (1) primary compensatory strategies and (2) secondary com-
pensatory strategies. Through primary compensatory strategies, individuals reduce the threat posed by prejudice by engaging in behaviors that enable them to achieve desired outcomes in spite of their stigma. Secondary compensatory strategies, by contrast, allow individuals to change their perceptions of outcomes that have been tainted by stigma. In essence, primary compensatory strategies are used to prevent negative outcomes related to stigma, while secondary compensatory strategies change one’s feelings about negative outcomes once they have occurred. In the sections that follow, we examine older adults’ maintenance of positive self-views through the application of these compensatory strategies.2
Primary Compensatory Strategies
In order to ward off the application of negative stereotypes, individuals may rely on primary compensatory strategies. One common primary strategy is self-presentation (Leary and Kowalski, 1990). Although its focus is not stigma, socioemotional selectivity theory (Carstensen, 1991) makes predictions that are compatible with primary compensatory strategies. We consider below the relevance of these two theories to coping with age stigma.
Self-presentation. According to self-presentation theory, people want to maintain positive self-views and are motivated to convey certain impressions of themselves to others. One way older adults cope with the stereotypes about their group is by monitoring and controlling how others perceive them. In a recent review, Martin, Leary, and Rejeski (2000) suggest that the self-presentational concerns of older adults can be categorized into three themes: (1) physical appearance, (2) competence and reliance, and (3) behavioral norms. Managing physical appearance and perceptions of competence and reliance are most consistent with primary compensatory strategies. Specifically, older individuals may attempt to manage or alter their physical appearance because it is relatively easy to categorize people as young or old upon first sight, which, in turn, may prompt the activation, and perhaps application, of negative age stereotypes. Older adults may also employ impression management strategies in order to avoid the potential costs associated with appearing incompetent and dependent. For example,
some older adults who suffer from urinary incontinence restrict their daily activities in order to remain near a bathroom (Mitteness, 1987). Similarly, older adults with hearing impairments may pretend to have heard conversations by nodding, smiling, and acting pleasantly during social interactions (Hallberg and Carlsson, 1991).
Although some of the self-presentational strategies older adults use may be successful, they may also come with negative consequences. Martin and colleagues (2000) suggest that some of the tactics may inadvertently cause individuals to engage in more risk-taking behaviors. For example, older adults who want to portray a physically fit or self-reliant image may attempt tasks that are beyond their capabilities, such as walking quickly or lifting heavy objects. Martin and colleagues (2000) suggest that some of these tactics may also lead to higher health risks. For example, an older adult who does not want to be mocked at the gym for not having a youthful body may opt not to exercise at all, becoming sedentary and not benefiting from the advantages of exercise. Thus, the person has avoided a circumstance in which she or he could be the target of prejudice, but has also increased his or her risk for health problems. Engaging in impression management can be a double-edged sword for older adults, as well as for other stigmatized groups (Crocker et al., 1998), because of the complexities associated with coping with a devalued social identity.
Socioemotional Selectivity Theory. Socioemotional selectivity theory (SST) construes older adults as active agents who construct their social worlds to fulfill their social and emotional needs. SST also posits that the perception of time as limited, not age, plays a central role in the selection and pursuit of social goals (Carstensen, 1991, 1995; Carstensen, Isaacowitz, and Charles, 1999). When time is perceived to be expansive, people give more consideration to the acquisition of knowledge, whereas when time is perceived to be limited, people give more consideration to seeking emotional comfort. Older adults perceive their time as limited, and consequently make choices that maximize positive emotions. Fredrickson and Carstensen (1990), for example, found that older adults show a bias for interacting with familiar, close social partners, whereas younger individuals show a preference for interacting with novel social partners. Similarly, in a sample of 69- to 104-year-olds, Lang and Carstensen (1994) found that although the older adults had fewer peripheral social partners compared to the younger adults, there was no difference between the two groups in the number of close social partners.
Drawing on the theories of self-presentation and socioemotional selectivity sketched above, one could hypothesize that avoiding social interactions with strangers is a primary compensatory strategy. Interactions with strangers, and particularly young adult strangers, are more likely to pose a
threat to one’s self-definition and require effort to ward off or disconfirm negative stereotypes. When older adults are involved in social interactions with close others, however, aging stereotypes are often less relevant and the interactions are more likely to affirm the self. Efforts to reduce one’s chances of being a target of prejudice, in other words, are consistent with older adults’ placing greater emphasis on emotional comfort, a tenet of socioemotional selectivity theory.
Secondary Compensatory Strategies
When individuals do become the target of prejudice, they may rely on secondary compensatory strategies to help them change the way they feel about the social situation. Secondary compensatory strategies can be categorized into three groups: (1) psychological disengagement, (2) disidentification, and (3) social comparison. We briefly describe each in the context of the experiences of older adults.
Psychological Disengagement. Psychological disengagement occurs when stigmatized individuals disengage their self-esteem from outcomes in the domains in which they are expected to perform poorly (see Steele et al., 2002). Research indicates that some older adults also psychologically disengage from traits and domains that are negatively associated with their group (Brandtstaedter and Greve, 1994; Heckhausen and Brim, 1997; Luszcz and Fitzgerald, 1986). Older adults, compared to middle-aged adults, for example, place less importance on goals related to work and finances, two domains in which older adults are perceived to have diminished capacity. Because one’s self-esteem is no longer tied to the domains in which the group is stereotyped to perform poorly, psychological disengagement helps individuals maintain a positive social identity. In addition to disengaging from devalued domains, older adults may opt to strengthen their connection to domains in which they have acquired knowledge and competence. Ryff (1989) suggests that such compensation plays a major role in the positive psychological adjustment of older adults.
Disidentification. Instead of disengaging from a stereotyped domain, some individuals choose to disidentify with their stigmatized group (Steele, 1997). Extreme forms of disidentification include “passing” as a member of a nonstigmatized group, while less extreme forms include de-emphasizing the group’s importance to one’s overall self-concept. Disidentification among older adults is evident in certain behaviors, such as lying about one’s age, dying one’s hair, and using antiaging wrinkle creams. The finding that many older adults do not consider themselves “old” could also be taken as evidence of disidentification. Recall, for instance, that older adults tended
to identify with younger adults more than with older adults on an implicit identity measure (Hummert et al., 2002). Moreover, this out-group identification was most pronounced for older adults with high self-esteem. Whether these data are indicative of disidentification from the group, or rather a failure of individuals to identify with the group initially, the outcome seems to be positive psychological well-being.
Social Comparison. Stigmatized individuals have also been found to use social comparisons in order to protect their identity and self-worth (Crocker et al., 1998). Individuals can affirm their self-worth by making downward comparisons with others (i.e., comparison with individuals who are worse off than they) or by limiting their social comparisons to intragroup, rather than intergroup, contexts. Research regarding older adults’ use of social comparisons, however, is quite complex, and may not follow the patterns found for other stigmatized groups, highlighting the need for social stigma researchers in social psychology to examine this group.
According to research on social comparisons, downward comparisons involve comparing the self with another person who is inferior to oneself in a given domain (Wood, 1989). Although some older adults engage in downward comparisons, many individuals are more likely to engage in social downgrading, which refers to comparing the self to a negatively biased view of one’s group (Heckhausen and Brim, 1997). In other words, individuals downgrade the abilities of other group members, thus allowing them to maintain positive self-views by comparison. Older adults, for instance, often have biased, negative expectations about what other people their age are able to do, allowing them to feel relatively superior about their own abilities (Heckhausen and Krueger, 1993). Similar to the self-enhancement function of the more common “better-than-average” effect, older adults seem to affirm their self-worth by believing they are better than “most people their age” (Celejewski and Dion, 1998; Heckhausen and Brim, 1997; Pinquart, 2002).
Research suggests that stigmatized individuals often compare their outcomes to similar others in order to maintain a positive identity (Crocker et al., 1998). In contrast, older adults make more social comparisons with dissimilar others as a way of affirming their uniqueness (Suls and Mullen, 1982). In addition, older adults use temporal comparisons as opposed to interpersonal comparisons in order to maintain positive self-views (Suls and Mullen, 1982). Temporal comparisons are evaluations based on what one could do before, compared to what one can do in the present. Older adults use such comparisons to remind themselves that, although certain behaviors are challenging now, they were able to perform these behaviors successfully in the past. Temporal comparisons allow for positive self-views that are grounded in one’s prior accomplishments.
As with primary compensatory strategies, however, secondary strategies can come with costs. For instance, psychological disengagement from domains in which older adults are stereotyped to perform poorly is likely to yield underperformance in those very domains, thus reinforcing the stereotypes. Furthermore, many of the negative stereotypes of older adults fall in domains that are essential for independence and healthful living. Disengaging self-esteem from their performance in these domains may relegate older adults to premature dependence. Disengagement from the identity may undermine the collective power of older adults insofar as individuals must be identified with a group in order to engage in action on its own behalf. Additionally, group identification seems to provide a buffer against the negative mental health consequences of discrimination (Garstka, Schmitt, Branscombe, and Hummert, 2004). Lastly, the use of temporal social comparisons and social downgrading may limit individuals’ growth and personal development. Ideally, researchers, advocates, and practitioners can work in collaboration with older adults to find a balance between accurate self-views and effective self-protection from the negative impact of age stigma.
Emerging Themes and Directions for Future Research
Several themes emerge from research on older adults and stigma. First, unlike many other stigmatized groups, older adults often do not think of themselves as members of the group, and, perhaps by extension, endorse negative stereotypes about aging. This is probably due to the fact that this is one of the few stigmatized groups in which individuals gradually enter over time, and the boundaries of the group are both porous and ambiguous. That is, at one point individuals are out-group members who hold negative stereotypes about the group. As time progresses, however, individuals find themselves as candidates for in-group membership, and must wrestle with whether or not they identify with the group, and whether the prevailing negative stereotypes apply to them. Perhaps as a solution to this dilemma, older adults have complex views both of themselves and of their age group, and these views incorporate both negative and positive stereotypes.
Future research is needed on the processes by which these more complex views are incorporated in individuals’ self-concepts. For example, at what period of life does this process begin? How stressful or disruptive is the process? What contextual factors shape the outcome of this process? Moreover, how do individuals negotiate the “transition” from nonstigmatized middle-aged adult to stigmatized older adult? Are individuals who are members of a stigmatized group based on some other dimension of identity (e.g., race, sexual orientation) better or less able to cope with this transition (e.g., McDougall, 1993)?
A second theme that emerges from the research is that features of the social context can shape, in part, older adults’ social identity, physical health, and cognitive task performance. This idea is consistent with research on adult social cognition that examines cognitive changes and performance within the framework of adaptive functioning (e.g., Blanchard-Fields and Chen, 1996), as well as research revealing contextual effects on older adults’ memory performance, such as the presence of a child as opposed to a young-adult listener (Adams, Smith, Pasupathi, and Vitolo, 2002). Similarly, the research by Hess and colleagues (2003) and Levy and colleagues (see Levy, 2003, for a review) suggests that older adults’ cognition, behavior, and mental health may be influenced by exposure to negative stereotypes in the social context. Building on this work, future research should investigate how cues in the social contexts of older adults outside the laboratory may be changed in ways that will improve their well-being.
The final theme that emerges from this research is that of coping strategies. Older adults are faced with a unique set of physical changes that influence their use of coping strategies to contend with stigma-related stress. Research examining older adults’ coping behavior in the face of negative age stereotypes should also adopt an adaptive framework. Consistent with the social psychological research on social stigma, it is likely that this research will reveal both costs and benefits of several coping mechanisms that must be negotiated. Future research should examine these negotiations. In addition, personality and motivational factors are likely to contribute to the particular coping strategy that individuals select in a given context. Given that older adults were once younger adults, and have acquired their stigma later in life, they are likely to use their coping strategies later. Other stigmatized groups, such as ethnic minorities and gay individuals, seem to adopt coping strategies relatively early on in order to negotiate prejudice. Consequently, research on the specific strategies used by older adults, as well as comparative work with the strategies used by other stigmatized groups, is warranted.
In sum, the message of the work reviewed in the second section of this paper is a call for additional research on older adults and the effects of ageism. The findings of such research will be essential to the development of societal-level intervention programs and strategies to reduce and eventually eradicate ageism, lessening the burden on older adults of developing strategies to cope with and combat ageism on their own.
The purpose of our review was to examine previous research on the stigmatization of older adults and to consider the consequences of ageism for the opportunities and life outcomes of older individuals. The first sec-
tion reviewed the research literature on the stereotypes, attitudes, and behavior of younger adults with respect to older adults. The second section reviewed literature on older adults’ self-concepts, self-stereotypes, and coping in the face of ageism. Overwhelmingly, research from both perspectives reveals that ageist beliefs can negatively influence the life outcomes of older adults, directly as well as through expectancy effects and self-stereotyping. In addition, the reviewed literature reveals important complexities and nuances of age stigma. For instance, not all age-differentiated behavior is the result of negative stereotypes and some such behavior may even be beneficial for older adults. Furthermore, research suggests that many older adults are remarkably resilient in the face of negative stereotypes, employing a variety of coping strategies designed to protect their self-esteem and well-being.
As life expectancy increases, it is neither just nor desirable for society to undermine the effectiveness of such a large component of the population. For instance, when stereotypes lead individuals to restrict themselves to domains in which their groups are not stereotyped negatively, those individuals lose their freedom to participate fully in society and society loses potentially unique contributions to those domains. Consequently, we propose that future research conduct a thorough, systematic examination of the nuances, varieties, and multiple dynamics of ageism. This examination must be grounded in basic science, drawing on the accumulated research of related fields (e.g., gerontology, communication) as well as paying particular attention to the idiosyncrasies associated with advanced age. The present review captures only some of what the social psychology of stigma has to offer to research on aging. We believe that only such a contextualized, interdisciplinary approach will unearth feasible and effective solutions to reduce or even eliminate ageism and its deleterious consequences for older and younger adults alike.
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