A team of researchers led by psychological scientist Becca Levy of the Yale School of Public Health used a novel intervention method to examine whether exposure to positive age stereotypes could weaken negative age stereotypes and their effects over time, and lead to healthier outcomes.
Participants in the study consisted of 100 older adults (average age 81 years), who were interviewed seven times over the course of 8 weeks. Once a week, from the second week through the fifth week, some of the participants received an implicit intervention in which they were exposed to positive age stereotypes — in the form of words like “spry” and “creative” — that flashed on a computer screen at speeds that were too fast to allow for conscious awareness.
Another group of participants received an explicit intervention in which they were asked to imagine and write about a mentally and physically healthy senior citizen.
A third group received both the implicit and explicit positive stereotype interventions, while a fourth group received implicit and explicit interventions that involved neutral words.
The results revealed that the implicit positive intervention had unique benefits for older adults. Those participants who were exposed to the positive messaging outside awareness exhibited a range of psychological and physical improvements that were not shown by either the participants who completed the explicit writing intervention or those who were exposed to neutral messaging.
Older adults who received the implicit intervention benefited from improved physical function, such as physical balance, which continued for three weeks after the intervention ended. The implicit intervention also strengthened the participants’ positive age stereotypes and positive self-perceptions of aging, while simultaneously weakening negative age stereotypes and negative self-perceptions of aging.
“The challenge we had in this study was to enable the participants to overcome the negative age stereotypes which they acquire from society, as in everyday conversations and television comedies,” said Levy. “The study’s successful outcome suggests the potential of directing subliminal processes toward the enhancement of physical function.”
While Levy’s previous research has provided evidence of the deleterious effects of negative age stereotypes, including weakened physical functioning, these new findings show how activation of positive age stereotypes, even outside awareness, can contribute to improved outcomes over time.
The study data showed that the intervention influenced physical function through a cascade of positive effects: It first strengthened the subjects’ positive age stereotypes, which then strengthened their positive self-perceptions, which then improved their physical function.
The research team also included Corey Pliver of the Yale School of Public Health, Martin Slade of the Yale School of Medicine, and Pil Chung of the University of California, Berkeley.
The research was supported by grants from the National Institute on Aging; National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; and the Patrick and Catherine Weldon Donaghue Medical Research Foundation.
For a copy of the research article and access to other Psychological Science in the Public Interest research findings, please contact: Anna Mikulak Association for Psychological Science 202.293.9300