Older people are bombarded with negative stereotypes about aging. In TV shows, ads, health news, and daily conversation, being old is often equated with being frail, helpless, and incompetent. Studies have linked increased exposure to such stereotypes and negative attitudes about aging to poorer health and worse cognitive and physical function—that is, the messages can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
In an analysis of 37 studies of older people (average age 70), published in Psychology and Aging, English researchers found that situations that evoke negative age-related stereotypes can impair memory and cognition. For instance, even “subtle differences” in the way older people are treated—such as being spoken to very slowly or being patronized—can lead to underperformance on subsequent cognitive testing.
How can negative age stereotypes be countered? In a Yale study in Psychological Science, researchers did an experiment to see if positive stereotypes would reduce their effect, with this twist—they used subliminalmessaging. This involves flashing words or images on a screen so fast that they escape conscious notice, though they can subconsciously affect the viewers’ thoughts and actions.
The study involved 100 people ages 61 to 99, with a mean age of 81. Once a week for four weeks, one group was exposed to subliminal positive age-related stereotypes—words such as “spry” and “creative” flashed on a computer screen. Another group focused on explicit positive stereotypes—they were instructed to write essays about healthy aging.
Exposure to the subliminal positive messages improved the participants’ perceptions about aging and enhanced their physical function (in tests of strength, gait, and balance), while the explicit messages had little effect. The benefits persisted during the three-week follow-up. According to the researchers, the subliminal messages created “a cascade of positive effects”: They strengthened the subjects’ positive age stereotypes, which in turn enhanced their perceptions about their own capabilities, which then improved their physical function.
It’s not known how long such improvements would last, or whether positive stereotypes about aging would continue to overcome all the negative ones that inundate us. There are also ethical questions about using subliminal messaging to influence behavior, even for good purposes. But many older people would undoubtedly sign up for such an attitude boost, especially if it could enhance their well-being.