From “senior citizen” to “recycled teenager” to “coffin dodger,” there are many ways to label elderly people. Some of these terms denote dignity and others display a downright disrespectfulness. For many people the word “old” is a feared word, associated with incapacity, dependence, physical deterioration, and death. For others the concept of being old is simply foreign, and like people do with other unknown entities, they make assumptions and associations that may not always be accurate. Stereotypes are a common way of processing people and things around us, without devoting too much thought to them. Stereotypes exist across many domains and although age stereotypes may not seem as prevalent as others stereotypes, they are equally pervasive. There are many stereotypes about older people, but the two main elderly stereotypes focused on here are warmth and incompetence. Stereotyping older people as warm and incompetent can influence younger people’s behavior and can be detrimental to elderly people’s own self-perception and behavior.
Two primary assumptions made about older people are that they are warm yet incompetent. These two labels may seem simplistic, however they can each be viewed as umbrella terms covering several characteristics. Warmth and competence are considered to be two dimensions on which in-group members (in this case adolescents, younger adults, and middle aged people) will make stereotypes for out-group members. A perception of warmth will indicate someone is friendly, sincere and honest while perceived competence can denote intelligence and a capacity to work effectively and efficiently (de Paulo Couto, Koller 2012). Research shows that elderly folks are regarded highly on warmth traits but rated lower on competence. Consequently, this assumption leads to perception of the elderly lacking ambitiousness, responsibility, and the ability to be independent, in addition to intellectual incompetence (Cuddy, Norton, Fiske 2005). Furthermore, there seems to be a mutual dependence between the two traits, meaning that the warmer people rate the elderly, the more inept or incapable they rate them (Cuddy 2005). While the warmth stereotype does not incite a negative backlash, incompetence certainly does. This stereotype has significant ramifications on how the elderly are perceived by the younger populace.
The connotations of being old are so ingrained that they not only can affect how younger people view the elderly but can even influence how they act, particularly after they are exposed to words with elderly connotations. Several studies have demonstrated how merely priming younger people with age-related words can affect their performance on certain tasks. For instance in one experiment with a driving simulator, one group of participants was primed with words related to aging while a control group was primed with random words. The group primed with aging words, though they were not aware of the study’s purpose, drove at a much slower pace than the control group (Branaghan & Gray 2010). Clearly the mere thought or mention of being old can slow people down, even though it is absolutely unrelated to their potential skill. It is important to recognize how this may impact the elderly population.
These stereotypes may seem harmless, but they can actually be detrimental to the physical and mental well-being of elderly folks. When older people develop a negative self-perception they can, regardless of its truth, actually create problems for themselves. For instance, one 2006 study found that “young, healthy people under 50 who held negative attitudes toward the elderly were more likely to experience a cardiovascular disorder over the next four decades than their peers who had a [sic] more positive view of the elderly” (Alexia Elejalde Ruiz 2011). Another study determined that when the elderly are exposed to negative aging stereotypes, they are more likely to perceive themselves as sicker, lonelier and have a higher tendency to engage in help-seeking behavior, underscoring a dependent nature (Coudin & Alexopoulos 2010). The sad reality is that stereotypes that seem innocuous or humorous may be more damaging than good-natured. The negative expectations people impose on themselves may be more limiting than they realize.
Certainly not everyone holds elderly people in such low esteem, however it is common enough to be considered an issue. The assumptions of warmth and incompetence in elderly folks is pervasive in American culture and not only affects their perceived place in society but can influence how they feel about themselves, whether it is true or not. Stereotypes, especially those that are negative, may start out innocently but over time can transform into prejudice and discrimination. To consider that all elderly people are a certain way is simply not realistic. Can these stereotypes be eliminated? Probably not, but with information and awareness, it may be possible to alleviate some of the negative consequences.
Branaghan, R. J., & Gray, R. (2010). Nonconscious activation of an elderly stereotype and speed of driving. Perceptual And Motor Skills, 110(2), 580-592. doi:10.2466/PMS.110.2.580-592
Cuddy, A. C., Norton, M. I., & Fiske, S. T. (2005). This Old Stereotype: The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Elderly Stereotype. Journal Of Social Issues, 61(2), 267-285.
Coudin, G., & Alexopoulos, T. (2010). ‘Help me! I’m old!’ how negative aging stereotypes create dependency among older adults. Aging & Mental Health, 14(5), 516-523. doi:10.1080/13607861003713182
de Paula Couto, M., & Koller, S. (2012). Warmth and competence: Stereotypes of the elderly among young adults and older persons in Brazil. International Perspectives In Psychology: Research, Practice, Consultation, 1(1), 52-62. doi:10.1037/a0027118
Elejalde-Ruiz, Alexia (2011). How Old Do You Feel Inside? Chicago Tribune.
Pipher, Mary (1999). Society Fears The Aging Process. Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders.