Looking Into The Eyes of Your Older Self

The potent effects of negative aging stereotypes

Posted Oct 16, 2017

Imagine you could watch yourself grow older. Check out the Oldify app. You can look into your own eyes, several decades from now. Chances are good that you might be motivated to wear more sunscreen and increase your retirement savings.

An innovative study suggests you might also feel more anxious about growing older. In a project conducted by Christine E. Rittenour and Elizabeth L. Cohen at West Virginia Unversity, participants did not seem to like seeing themselves several decades older. For example, research participants who saw their older images felt more negative about aging and judged older adults as more incompetent than participants who did not see an older version of their faces, or who saw an older version of a stranger’s face. Their work is published in a 2016 issue of The International Journal of Aging

Some psychological theories suggest that contact with groups that are different from one’s own—that is, greater interaction with members of an “out group”—might decrease harmful stereotypes. So if younger persons had greater contact with older persons—under favorable conditions—their aging stereotypes might diminish.  However, seeing oneself as older may have the opposite effect. Looking into your older adult eyes might be so threatening that aging stereotypes are actually increased. That is one powerful stereotype. 

Data published earlier this year present a different and slightly more hopeful perspective that negative ideas about aging are not ubiquitous. Younger and older research participants were instructed to select words to describe older adults. The participants were provided 40 positive and 40 negative words from which to select 15 words. When allowed to freely respond, older participants selected more positive than negative words to describe older adults. In a similar condition, younger participants selected a balance of positive and negative words to describe older adults. Thus, on average, negative ideas about aging did not dominate responses. Priming of aging stereotypes pulled for more negative descriptions but I take heart that spontaneous responses—at least from older persons—were dominated by positive descriptors. These data were published in 2017 by Liqing Zhou and colleagues in Experimental Aging Research. 

Nevertheless, negative aging stereotypes are pervasive and harmful. Greater awareness of how to better understand—and ultimately change—adverse notions of aging are imperative. Older adults are a rapidly growing segment of our society with untapped psychological resources.  

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