Age-Based Stereotype Threat
Age-based stereotype threat is an identity threat that is experienced in situations when someone perceives that they will be evaluated negatively against age stereotypes associated with their age group. This can happen when a person’s age is a salient factor in the context or when age stereotypes provide expectations around performance or behavior. This threat has been shown to result in worse performance outcomes on negatively stereotyped tasks.
In many societies, older people are stereotyped as less competent than younger people‚ but more warm, friendly, and moral (Abrams et al. 2011). These age stereotypes, when negative, put people at risk of experiencing age-based stereotype threat (ABST). ABST is specific to contexts where age stereotypes present a threat to someone’s positive sense of self or identity (Tajfel and Turner 1979). ABST arises from anxiety about being judged or treated negatively due to one’s age, as well as a fear of confirming negative age stereotypes (Steele and Aronson 1995). Within research, the experience of ABST can either be self-reported by an individual (von Hippel, Kalokerinos and Henry 2013) or evidenced through the negative effects it has on performance outcomes, known as ABST effects. The majority of research and this chapter focus on ABST experienced by older people and the contexts in which they are negatively stereotyped.
Key Research Findings and Applications
Older people are often the focus of ABST research due to culturally embedded stereotypes and expectations that memory, cognitive, and physical ability decline with age (Cuddy, Norton and Fiske 2005). While patterns of age-related decline have been identified in some areas of functioning in later life (e.g., Harada et al. 2013; Shipstead et al. 2016), stereotypes exaggerate what is experienced and are overgeneralized to people perceived to be old. For instance, in the UK the most common response for when people think old age starts was ‘60’ (Abrams et al. 2011). People in their 60s, who are much less likely to show signs of cognitive or physical decline, are therefore likely to be the target of these negative old-age stereotypes and are at risk of experiencing ABST. Indeed, a recent meta-analysis combined the results of 32 ABST lab studies and provides robust evidence that ABST, in the form of being reminded of age comparisons or age stereotypes before a testing situation, has a detrimental (worsening) effect on participants’ memory and cognitive performance (Lamont et al. 2015). In these studies participant’s age typically ranged from 55 to 75.
Showing its relevance within medical settings, ABST can lead to worse performance on tests indicative of dementia (Mazerolle et al. 2017) and frailty (Swift et al. 2012). ABST can lead people to appraise their abilities, such as hearing, more negatively (Barber and Lee 2015) and lead people to place greater dependence on others (Coudin and Alexopoulos 2010). Relevant to organizational contexts, older workers reporting ABST in the workplace also report greater job dissatisfaction, worse well-being, and stronger intention to resign (von Hippel et al. 2013, 2019).
The mechanisms that underpin ABST effects are less well evidenced than its negative consequences. Some research has shown that underperformance, as a result of ABST, is due to changes in people’s motivation and how they approach a task (Barber et al. 2015), while other research argues that negative thoughts and feelings about stereotype-based judgment deplete cognitive resources needed for the task at hand (Schmader et al. 2008).
In the Risks of Ageism Model‚ ABST is highlighted as one pathway through which negative age stereotypes can impact on an individual’s potential for active and healthy aging. This is because of its potential to impact outcomes within health and social care, in the workplace, and in social and personal domains (Swift et al. 2016, 2017). Interventions within these settings, such as promotion of meaningful intergenerational contact and supporting people from an early age to develop healthy views of aging, have been shown to reduce ABST effects (Abrams et al. 2008; Crawford 2015).
ABST research highlights how people can be disadvantaged by their own awareness of‚ and reaction to negative age stereotypes. In formal test settings, particularly those looking at the cognitive and physical competencies of older people, cues to age and age stereotypes should be minimized and considered as a risk factor for underperformance. In the workplace and more widely, age differentials and a culture of negative stereotyping should be discouraged and efforts made to promote intergenerational cooperation and balanced views of aging.
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