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“Life Stage-Specific” Variations in Performance in Response to Age Stereotypes

American Psychological Psychology publication, Journal of Developmental Psychology, August 2012

Deloitte, Diversity, Global researchDo our perceptions of being ‘too old’ or ‘too young’ influence our ability to perform well at certain tasks if we believe we are under the control of others?

Research into age bias has confirmed that, in comparison to middle-aged adults, both younger and older adults are more likely to report experiences of age discrimination. As a result they are generally assigned a lower status in our society and have less social power in terms of respect, influence and prestige.

Although younger and older adults share a similarly low status, the nature of the stigma directed at younger and older adults differs according to the permanence of group membership. For younger adults, the stigma associated with their “too young” status will go away as they age, eventually moving up to the higher middle-aged adult status. For older adults, the stigma of being “too old” is generally perceived as permanent.

While little is known about the effects of being subject to age based stigma of being “too young,” much more is known about the consequences of being subject to the stigma of being “too old.”

In our modern day society, older adults are often stigmatized as being incompetent; having diminished cognitive abilities; and as being unattractive, out of touch, and also suitable objects of ridicule.

On the contrary, younger adults are typically viewed as being rebellious, potential sources of danger due to their willingness to take risks, irresponsible and unable to meet societal expectations due to their perceived delinquency, self-absorption, moodiness, and obsession with having “fun”. Due to the nature of these perceived characteristics of younger age, researchers have suggested that younger adults are especially likely to be stigmatized in social situations that require moral reasoning and decision making.

The current study conducted by Associate Professor Jessica A. Hehman and Professor Daphne Blunt Bugental at the University of California explores the differences between younger and older adults. The study focuses on the nature of the stigma about their age group, their reactions to being subject to the stigma and the effect of their own perceptual biases on those reactions.

The researchers found that exposure to age-related stereotyped expectations had an effect on the performance outcomes of both younger and older adults. The research also highlights life stage specific reactions to age-based stigma with older and younger adults showing a very different pattern of responses.


The aim of this research was to investigate the extent to which age groups would respond to age-based stigma’s in different ways. The research look at two variables response as a function of their age group and the extent to which they believe their outcomes are controlled by powerful others link between.


The methodology adopted in this research used 54 older adults (aged 62–92) and 81 younger adults (aged 17–22) adults and told them that a task (Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale-III block design test) required either speed/contemporary knowledge and therefore would be associated with a “youth advantage” or life experience and wisdom associated with an “age advantage”. In order to investigate the role of individuals’ own perceptual biases in response to age-based stigma, participants also completed a measure of perceived personal control of their life outcomes.

The Powerful Others Scale of the Levenson Locus of Control test was used to assess the extent to which respondents perceive their outcomes as under the control of powerful others versus under their own control (Levenson,1973). Respondents are asked to rate their agreement or disagreement with statements such as the following: (a) “My life is chiefly controlled by powerful others” and (b) “Getting what I want requires pleasing those people above me.”

Hehman and Blunt Bugental hypothesised that:

  1. Older adults would show lower performance on a task that is generally believed to require youth-oriented skills, with the stereotype confirmation effect being greater for those with lower perceived control (i.e., the belief that their outcomes are controlled by powerful others). The stereotype confirmation process observed in older adults reflects the notion that stable sources of stigma based on permanent group membership are not easily overcome.
  2. Younger adults would show efforts to disconfirm that they are “too young and inexperienced” by performing well on a task described as requiring life experience with the stereotype disconfirmation effect being greater for those with lower perceived control.
  3. In addition, the researches proposed that a difference in permanence of their group membership may underlie differences between younger and older adults in their reactions to age-based stereotypes.


An analysis of the findings confirmed the above mentioned hypotheses and revealed that :

1. Stereotype confirmation effect amongst older adults

When exposed to a negative age-relevant prime, older adults’ performance on the cognitive task decreased and therefore resulted in a stereotype confirmation effect. When added as an additional variable, perceived control that others had influence over their life outcomes resulted in additional performance deficits,

This indicates that older adults experience age-relevant threat and this is increased by the additive effects being under the perceived control of others. That is, the more the threat from exposure to a negative age-relevant stereotype and low-perceived control over their life outcomes, the worse older adults performed on the cognitive task.

2. Stereotype challenge effect amongst younger adults

For younger adults, contrary to the responses of older adults, the more the threat, the better young adults performed on the cognitive task. Exposure to a negative age-relevant prime resulted in a stereotype challenge effect, but only if they saw themselves as under the control of powerful others.
Instead of surrendering to stereotype threat or succumbing to being under the control of powerful others, younger adults showed pushback against the combination of threats by demonstrating stronger performance on the cognitive task.

3. Permanence of group membership

The opposed responses of the two age groups are interpreted as reflecting differences in the permanence of their group membership and uniqueness of age-based stigma.
The stereotype confirmation process observed in older adults reflects the notion that stable sources of stigma based on permanent group membership are not easily overcome. This is consistent with the research evidence of stereotype threat effects on older adults across a wide variety of tasks and domains (Hess et al., 2003 and Rahhal, Hasher, & Colcombe, 2001).

On the contrary, the dynamic nature of the stigma around younger adults protects younger adults from negative effects with the knowledge that, with age, the stigma will go.

This suggests an important difference between younger and older adults in expectations of future discrimination as a function of their age status.

It also suggests that stereotype confirmation may be more common in response to groups that are stable and/or permanent (e.g., older adults). In contrast, stigmatization of temporary and/or dynamic groups (e.g., young adults) may lead to resistance and disconfirmation.


Given the pervasiveness of age-based stigma in our society and the fact that it adversely affects older adults’ psychological, behavioural, and physiological well-being, workplaces need to take active steps promote a culture of Diversity & Inclusion.

Encouraging multi-aged teams and determining clear behavioural standards and codes of practice will help foster a positive work environment for co-workers of all ages. Additional support structures may be beneficial to help older-adults raise any age-related concern or performance issues.

The findings from this research show the first evidence of younger adults’ reactivity to age-relevant threats, which is in the opposite direction of the damaging effects observed in older adults. Although this can be viewed as a somewhat positive finding, workplace policies should ensure age-related threats are unacceptable if directed at older or younger workers.

To read the full article, see Hehman, J. A., & Bugental, D. B. (2012, August 13). “Life Stage-Specific: Variations in Performance in Response to Age Stereotypes”. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029559.

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