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.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Memory Aggravates Relational Pain. There Is a Treatment

It’s that time of year for making New Year’s resolutions, and I am inspired to write this on January 1 because good resolutions can result. I never thought about the pain of broken relationships much in the context of learning experience and memory until I ran across a LinkedIn post from writer and speaker Carl Prude Jr. Here is what he posted:

“Resentment and unforgiveness are two of the wardens of relational pain. Whenever we employ them they only make sure that we are constantly reminded of the hurt and smallness we felt from hearing someone's negative remarks. They also make sure that we never see the incident in a forward-moving context - instead, keeping us chained to a low moment in our past. I try to look beyond the circumstances of their comment and evaluate the comment independently - to see if it has any constructive merit. If it was mean-spirited or intentional, I immediately dismiss it and forgive the person who said it.”

Usually when we think about memory we focus on how to strengthen it. But there are times when it is best to forget – as in the case of hurtful things we have endured from other people. Here is a case where nursing the hurt leads it to fester, not heal.

So, how do you teach yourself to forget things you should? This maybe especially hard if your focus has always been to enhance memory.

I have discussed some related ideas for erasing memories in earlier posts on new treatments for post-traumatic stress syndrome. In the next post, I will discuss some recent research on advertising where marketers work hard to erase the memories of counter-productive ads.

But here, I want to focus on erasing memories involving relational pain, like the kind you find among spouses in unhappy marriages, siblings clinging to memories of childhood conflicts, employees who are underappreciated or employers who resent lack of support and loyalty. Of course there are many kinds of broken relationships, but all have one thing in common:

The slights and insults are remembered
and etched in a heart of stone from frequent recall.

The pain will never go away as long as the memory is strengthened by recalling it. Typically, one has to learn to forget the pain, not necessarily what caused it. But how does one learn to forget pain?

In many cases, it is a matter of breaking the bad habit of rehearsing the memory and thus strengthening it. Humans react the same way as Pavlov’s dogs, in that repeating a stimulus, in this case the relational affront, conditions memory of it. Like Pavlov’s dogs, if you could repeat the stimulus without the associated pain, the affront would lose its association with the painful memory. Though our natural instinct is to disengage with people who have hurt us, the cure may require us to find ways to continue engagement under non-threatening circumstances. This is equivalent to repeating the conditioning harmful stimulus without the associated punishment – thus extinguishing memory of the original bad learning experience. This is not easy to do, and is sometimes unwise to attempt.

Nonetheless, the principle is sound. People can use the extra brain power that dogs do not have to review the memory more dispassionately. This demands a more objective analysis of the original painful events. It should begin by examining your own contribution to the event, as I explain in my book, “Blame Game, How To Win It.” People don’t usually say and do hurtful things without some kind of provocation, and it may have come from you. More objective analysis also usually reveals that the affront is not nearly as important as you have made it in order to nurture memory of the affront. Humans have a perverse need to remember and magnify affronts, for it validates their vanity. Saying to oneself, “I did not deserve this affront, my hands are clean” is salve to a wounded psyche. We feel better about ourselves, and superior to the perpetrator. Thus, we make sure we remember the events that bolster our vanity.

Also basic to rational analysis is the recognition that all people make mistakes. We have to put ourselves in this category too, but focusing on the misdeeds of others reduces the perceived need to admit our own flaws. Learning to accept and live with human nature is a hallmark of maturity, and it is no wonder that many of our remembered grievances occurred in childhood when we had not yet learned to understand and accept the weaknesses of others.

Nursing grudges creates the habit of nursing grudges. The cure is to have more self-discipline in breaking of bad habits. I explore this in the above-referenced book. But one example comes from a racial bias experiment I described in which racially biased people were trained to be more accepting by having more emotionally neutral social interactions with members of the opposite race. Humans are hard-wired to be more comfortable in a like social group. That’s why tribalism persists even in most cultures even today.

How does one acquire more self-discipline, which of course is needed to break habits? Well, we could join the military and go to boot camp.  In boot camp, you learn to do things you don’t really want to do. In everyday life, forcing yourself to do what is needed and though not appealing, creates character and self-control. Self-induced practice can include making yourself do such things as:

·         Self-train in small steps. “Life by the inch is a cinch. Life by the yard is hard.”
·         Act as if you already are as you wish to be.
·         Get your act together (pay attention, get off your butt, organize your life, dress and groom well).
·         Always be on time.
·         Do things you know you should, even though you don’t want to.
·         Do the hard things first.
·         Increase, rather than decrease, dealing with people you don’t like.

Finally, it is essential to be more introspective about one’s self-esteem. As I explain in the book, self-esteem has two components, self-confidence and self-worth. The fully actualized person has both. Neither component alone is sufficient to neutralize the false gratification we feel from perverse remembering and magnification of affronts. Generating self-confidence is relatively easy, because it can be earned. So get out and earn it, emphasizing things that seem to work for you and learn what you have to do to build small successes into big ones.

Sense of self-worth is harder to have. At one time or another, all of us have endured neglect, slights, and insults. We may have been used, perhaps even abused. How does one cure a broken spirit? First, I recommended believing in a God who created you, loves you, and values you. Accept that love, pray intently with thanks for it, and ask that it give you strength to be a better person. Second, be more socially active and engage with more different kinds of people one on one. Seek friendship, remembering the axiom that to have a friend one needs to be a friend.

Actualization begins with realizing the importance of caring for yourself. The commandment, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” needs to be thought of more in terms of the italicized words. Ability to love others or forgive affronts depends on one’s self-esteem. Each of us should examine our every thought and action with the question, “Is this really helping me, or is it good for me?”

As I said at the outset, nursing the hurt makes it fester, not heal.

Blame Game, How To Win It is endorsed by media celebrities Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Reverend Robert Schuller. The book is available through Amazon.