“Stereotype threat” is the fear that you will confirm to yourself or others that a negative stereotype about a group you belong to is true.
For example, research has shown that older adults who have a fear of becoming the stereotypical “elderly person with dementia” are more likely to perform more poorly on tests of cognition. And since cognitive tests are often included during annual wellness exams for older people, a poor performance due to stereotype threat can actually lead to a false diagnosis of dementia.
All previous research on how stereotype threat can affect memory in older people has been conducted on adults in Western cultures.
Now, researcher Dr. Sarah Barber, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and graduate student Shyuan Ching Tan have just published the first such study of older Chinese immigrants from East Asia in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.
They discovered stereotype threat can affect memory performance in older Chinese people too, but that culturally appropriate interventions can reduce that threat.
“I have always been curious about the aging process of older East Asian immigrants. I have often heard Chinese elders complain that the behavior of their children and other younger adults is at odds with the Confucian values of obedience, loyalty and propriety,” said Tan, now a Ph.D. student at Pennsylvania State University.
“I was interested in understanding how these Chinese elders cope with ageism, and whether affirmation of their cultural values could help buffer them from stereotype threat.”
As part of her work toward her master’s degree in gerontology, Tan recruited 114 Chinese immigrants, aged 55 to 84, to determine how well they performed on a memory test with and without a stereotype threat.
The participants completed a memory test under one of three conditions. In the first condition, the researchers removed any negative stereotype about seniors by telling participants that people of all ages would perform equally well.
The second and the third conditions involved a stereotype threat: Participants were told they would be taking a test to see how aging affects memory, and that their performance would be compared to that of younger adults.
But the third condition also included an “intervention” — a reminder that Chinese traditions honor the aged and wise and that these beliefs had been instilled in younger generations.
The findings show that participants performed better when no stereotype was present or when the stereotype threat was alleviated with the intervention language.
This study is important, said the researchers, not only because it is the first to show that stereotype threats affect older Asian people, too, but also because it shows that tests conducted without stereotype threats give a more accurate evaluation of cognitive skills.
“When older adults are in situations where others expect them not to do well, they can feel concerned and anxious,” said Tan. “Stereotype threats can result in them forgetting more than they would have otherwise.”
The researchers say the new findings are particularly timely because age-based stereotype threat could be considered a public health problem in Asia where the population is aging rapidly. If cognitive tests were better designed to eliminate stereotype threats, said Barber, health care professionals could make sure that seniors are performing to the best of their abilities.
The research was funded by the National Institute on Aging.
Source: San Francisco State University