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Stereotypes About Old Age Can Hurt Seniors’ Memory

Update Date: Jul 01, 2013 03:01 PM EDT
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Stereotypes exist within society as a way to group people into different categories. Even though stereotypes can help people in certain social situations, they can also do a lot more harm than one would think. In a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) Davis, the team discovered that stereotypes about old age can lead to poorer memory skills in seniors.

"Older adults should be careful not to buy into negative stereotypes about aging - attributing every forgetful moment to getting older can actually worsen memory problems." said Sarah Barber, a postdoctoral researcher at the USC Davis School and lead author of the study according to Medical Xpress. Barber worked with co-author Mara Mather, professor of gerontology and psychology at USC.

In this study, researchers looked at the effects of stereotype threat in the elderly. Stereotype threat is a psychological phenomenon that explains how relating to certain stereotyped groups could potentially lower one's ability to perform at one's highest level. For example, the stereotype that girls do not play sports could influence some girls to avoid these activities, never knowing if they could have been the world's best player in whichever sport.

The research team conducted two experiments with seniors who were between 59 and 79-years-old. In the first experiment, one group of seniors were given articles to read that discussed memory loss as one ages. The second group of seniors did not read anything about memory loss. Both groups were given memory tests. The researchers found that the group who read about memory loss performed worse on the test than the seniors who did not receive the articles.

In the second experiment, the researchers gave some seniors the incentive of cash per every word they remembered. Other seniors were told that they would have to pay cash per every word they forgot. In this situation, the researchers found that when there was a cash earning incentive, the first group still performed about 20 percent worse than the second group. However, when the variable of losing cash was in place, the first group actually performed better than the second. The researchers believe that the first group performed better due to an increase in motivation and focus after reading about the potential memory loss they could have experienced due to old age.

"Stereotype threat is generally thought to be a bad thing, and it is well established that it can impair older adults' memory performance. However, our experiments demonstrate that stereotype threat can actually enhance older adults' memory if the task involves avoiding losses," Barber explained. "Our experiments suggest an easy intervention to eliminate the negative effects of stereotype threat on older adults-clinicians should simply change the test instructions to emphasize the importance of not making mistakes."

The study was published in Psychological Science

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