Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Sep 12, 2019

Stereotypes Undermine Older Adults’ Self-Control

by Mindi Price & Jessica Alquist
Mature couple sitting at kitchen table with laptop looking through financial papers,

When an aging parent or grandparent gambles more money than he or she intended or snaps at a store clerk, many of us are quick to assume that getting old simply lowers people’s ability to control themselves.  Older adults are viewed as less capable of controlling what they say and do than are younger adults. Certainly, our brains and our personalities change as we age.  But the lack of self-control that seniors often seem to show may be grounded as firmly in their social environment as in their brains. 

Across two studies, we examined the effects of negative stereotypes about senior citizens on older adults’ self-control. Our participants, all of them at least 65 years old, were asked to read what they thought were recent news articles.  These were not actual news stories but rather articles that we designed to present our older readers with one of two views of aging. Some participants read that memory declines quickly with age—and that older adults are less able than younger adults to remember what they intended to do. Other participants read that memory is maintained very well across the lifespan—and that older adults are good at remembering their intentions.  A third group of participants read neutral articles about nature.

We then asked all participants whether they would choose to receive a smaller amount of money immediately or a larger amount of money in the future. For example, we asked if participants would rather receive $24 now or wait and receive $35 in 29 days. Being willing to wait for a larger reward instead of settling for an immediate smaller reward reflects better self-control, much like choosing to save money for a much-desired family vacation instead of going out to eat every night.

The seniors who read about declines in memory among older adults—those who were reminded of the negative stereotype—were the least likely of the three groups to choose the larger (delayed) rewards.  In fact, seniors who read that memory declines with age chose the larger future payoff less than a third of the time, whereas seniors who read that memory does not decline with age chose the larger future payoff on average about half the time.

One reason this occurred is that negative stereotypes make older adults feel older in relation to their actual age. Consistent with previous research, most of our participants reported feeling younger than they actually were. However, this effect was reduced among participants who read the article about the negative stereotype.  Exposure to negative stereotypes caused people to feel less young compared with their actual age, and this tendency to feel older predicted worse self-control.

Although age may directly cause poor self-control, these disparities between the old and the young may increase when people are reminded of negative stereotypes about aging.  Negative stereotypes about older adults are can be seen in movies, greeting cards, and even commercials. As a recent example, ETrade’s 2018 Superbowl ad featuring “DJ Nana” mocked the idea of older adults working. 

Research on stereotype threat shows that making people aware of negative stereotypes about their groups can impair their performance. For example, reminding women that other people  expect them to perform poorly on a math task can disrupt women’s math performance.  (For a recent Character and Context blog on this topic, see  Our research shows that reminding seniors of negative stereotypes about their group can impair their self-control—even when the stereotypes about which seniors are reminded are not specifically about self-control.    

So what can we do? In addition to reducing negative stereotypes about aging, reducing the effect of feeling stereotyped could improve older adults’ self-control. Research has shown that just learning about the effect of stereotypes—like reading this article right now!—may reduce the negative outcomes associated with negative stereotypes. 

For Further Reading

Alquist, J. L., Price, M. M., Hancock, D., Talley, A. E., & Cukrowicz, K. (2018). Exposure to negative stereotypes impairs older adults’ self-control. Self and Identity, 1–11.

Mindi Price is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Psychological Sciences at Texas Tech University, researching experimental psychology (social), with a focus on how self-control relates to health.  Jessica Alquist is an Associate Professor at Texas Tech University who studies self-control.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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