A new study has found that attributing every forgetful moment to getting older — so-called “senior moments” — can actually exacerbate their memory problems.
According to researchers at the University of Southern California School of Gerontology, their new study is an extension of the idea of “stereotype threat,” a widely studied phenomenon in social psychology.
When people are confronted with negative stereotypes about a group with which they identify, they tend to “self-handicap and underperform compared to their potential,” the researchers said. This inadvertently confirms the negative stereotype they were worried about in the first place.
“Older adults should be careful not to buy into negative stereotypes about aging — attributing every forgetful moment to getting older can actually worsen memory problems,” said Sarah Barber, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the USC Davis School and lead author of the study.
The study also revealed there is a way to eliminate the problem, she noted.
“No one had yet examined the intriguing possibility that the mechanisms of stereotype threat vary according to age,” Barber said.
Barber and her co-author Mara Mather, Ph.D., professor of gerontology and psychology at USC, conducted two experiments in which adults between the ages of 59 and 79 completed a memory test. Some were first asked to read fake news articles about memory loss in older adults, while others did not.
The researchers also structured the test so that half of the participants earned a monetary reward for each word they remembered; the other half lost money for each word they forgot.
For participants who had something to gain, being confronted with age stereotypes meant poorer performance on memory tests. They scored about 20 percent worse than people who were not exposed to the stereotype.
But when the test was framed in terms of preventing losses due to forgetting, the results flipped: Participants reminded of the stereotypes about aging and memory loss actually scored better than those who were under no stereotype threat.
“Stereotype threat is generally thought to be a bad thing, and it is well-established that it can impair older adults’ memory performance,” Barber said. “However, our experiments demonstrate that stereotype threat can actually enhance older adults’ memory if the task involves avoiding losses.”
Older adults, it seems, respond to stereotype threat by changing their motivational priorities and focusing more on avoiding mistakes, she explained.
“Our experiments suggest an easy intervention to eliminate the negative effects of stereotype threat on older adults — clinicians should simply change the test instructions to emphasize the importance of not making mistakes,” Barber said.