Thursday, January 30, 2014

Age Stereotypes and Memory

Remember when you were a child and adults seemed to always be saying, "You are too young. Wait till you get older." Or, they said, "You will understand this better when you grow up." Now that you are older, especially if you are my age, people seem to be saying in the politest way they can, "When are you planning to retire?" "We have to make room for younger workers."

Oh, and if you are in the job market, a young person is often told "I'm afraid you don't have enough experience yet." But if you are over 50 or so, they will say "You are over-qualified for this position."

These inevitable put-downs are bad enough. But what you may not realize is that when you accept such judgments of others, you may well impair your performance capability and development. Here, I report research showing that this effect applies particularly to seniors, and that the effect can be counteracted by the right kind of intervention.

A study by Becca Levy (1) showed that seniors can generate a positive self-stereotype that improves memory performance. Moreover, the effect is more readily established if positive priming is done implicitly, that is without conscious realization. In this study they flashed positive-stereotype words on a screen at a rate fast enough to be registered by the brain but below the level of consciousness. Prior studies had shown that it is rather difficult to improve memory performance with explicit priming, perhaps because such priming is superficial relative to what might occur with implicit conditioning. This point is relevant here because much of our age-stereotype processing, both in youth and older age, is subliminal. While consciously we reject the age-related limitations that others imposed on us, repeatedly experiencing the put-downs grinds away at our resistance by unconscious, implicit means.

Here, a computer subliminally presented 90 seniors with words related either to an old-age image of senility or wisdom. Because all people vary a little in their speed threshold for conscious perception of words on a screen (it takes about 125-250 msecs), the view time was adjusted to be just below threshold for each subject. Before and after the priming intervention, three kinds of memory tests were given: 1) working memory immediately after a test, 2) recall immediately after repeat testing confirmed learning, and 3) recall after a delay in which other tasks were performed.

The group that received subliminal stimulation of positive stereotype words had better memory test scores, a higher estimate of their memory capability, and a more positive outlook on tests that measured attitude about aging. Declines were observed in the group that received negative-stereotype word stimulation.

A second study tested young people in the same way, and no such benefit of positive-stereotype conditioning was evident. This may indicate that a person’s pre-existing self-image governs how one responds to priming. Young people have not been pre-conditioned to think their memory is weak because of age.

A related study showed that a person’s explicit belief in their self-efficacy affects their memory performance (2). Typically, as a person ages, the confidence in memory ability declines. But this study aimed to raise confidence in memory ability in 84 people over 50 by a memory training program that integrated a memory skills training class for six weeks, three hours per week, with elements designed to change beliefs about memory competence. The study showed that by emphasizing mastery, verbal encouragement, reduced anxiety, and modeling skills throughout training, subjects became more convinced that they should believe in themselves and their ability to learn how to be more effective learners. And the memory tests bore out that prediction.
Recent studies by my fellow faculty member at Texas A&M, Lisa Geraci and her collaborator, showed that memory confidence can be easily bolstered in seniors and that, once more confident, they perform better (3). Their review of older literature established that negative stereotype priming can make seniors underperform. In their study, young college students and older adults (70 years average) were divided into equal groups that took a mental task that could be readily completed, or was impossible to complete, or given no task. The task items were clusters of five scrambled words that were to be re-arranged into a comprehensible sentence. Neutral words were used that had no priming relevance to age stereotyping. All subjects then took a free recall of a word list they were allowed to study for two minutes. OIder subjects in the task-success group recalled more words and reported less test-anxiety than those in the task-failure group or in the no-task group. No such task effects were seen in the young adults.

So, how can we apply these findings to everyday life outside the laboratory? Obviously, we have to contrive other ways to provide implicit positive priming. Maybe this could come from making more of an effort to improve memory, as my book Memory Power 101 aims to do. When your memory ability improves from using some established learning principles and techniques, you implicitly know it and that would reinforce positive feelings about memory capability. Indeed, this is what "memory athletes" experience. As they practice memorizing, they get better at it, of course, and this must surely have a subliminal effect on their sense of innate capability which in turn helps them reach memory championship-level performance.

Each of these studies makes the point that if you believe you can remember better, maybe you really can, and that in turn promotes positive feelings about the ability to remember. This becomes a self-perpetuating positive feedback loop for success.  Learning capability improves, in large part because of "learning-set" principles, which is a topic for another day. But as these studies I just summarized show, there is a beneficial component from a change in attitude about one's stereotype. So, for both reasons, I emphasize with my students,

The more you know, the more you can know.


1. Levy, Becca. (1996). Improving memory in old age through implicit self-stereotyping. J. Personality and Social Psychology. 71 (6), 1092-1107).

2. West, R. L. et al. (2008). Self-efficacy and memory aging: the impact of a memory intervention based on self-efficacy. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition. Doi: 10.1080/13825580701440510.
3. Geraci, L., and Miller, T. M. (2013) Improving older adults’ memory performance using prior task success. Psychology and Aging. 28 (2), 340-345.

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