Ageism and Age-Based Stereotypes

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While many forms of bias are considered taboo, in many ways, ageism is not.

Consider, for example, the 2008 Presidential election, where a 47 year old Barack Obama ran against a 71 year old John McCain. Pundits debated whether McCain’s age disqualified him for the office, and late night talk show hosts frequently poked fun at his age.

McCain was not alone. Research has shown that 84 percent of Americans and 91 percent of Canadians have experienced ageism.

These common occurrences make the topic of age-based stereotype threat all the more meaningful. As Sarah Barber of San Francisco State University explains, stereotype threat occurs in situations where people “must deal with the possibility of being judged or treated stereotypically, or of doing something that would confirm a stereotype.”

Common stereotypes linked with old age include forgetfulness, cognitive decline, and slower thinking. When older adults are placed in situations where they might confirm these stereotypes, their performance is likely to decline.

According to Barber, stereotype threat is most likely to occur when people’s own identity is threatened. In this way, an older adult might have a concern that their behavior will confirm in their own minds stereotypes that might be true of them.

When this occurs, not only will their performance suffer, but older adults are also likely to distance themselves from their age or age group. They are also likely to become more cautious and risk averse. This can, of course, feed into the very stereotypes about them.

There are options to combat stereotype threat. The first is role modeling, where people observe others like them performing at high levels. Another option comes in the form of value affirmation. If stereotype threat occurs in one area of a person’s life, she should be able to combat it by affirming her worth in a different area.