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Believe in Yourself: The Concept of Stereotype Threat and How It Affects Older Adults

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In a recent review of the stereotype threat that older adults face about their cognitive abilities, the author found that common factors observed in other groups influenced by stereotype threat (i.e., group identification) cannot always be applied to age-based stereotype threat about cognitive decline.

Stereotype threat is the fear of being judged as doing something stereotypical that would confirm one’s membership in a certain group. While it was once thought that stereotype threat was a construct that applied in the same manner across the board, for minorities (racism) as it does for older adults (ageism), it turns out that how much individuals identify with their stereotyped group is impacted by internal matters, like self-worth in the case of minorities and signals of cognitive decline for older individuals.

Research has repeatedly shown that older adults who espouse stereotypes about older adults embody those attributes themselves more than those who don’t. In other words, they show more cognitive and physical decline. Although some decline is natural with age, when older study participants are placed in situations in which they could confirm or disconfirm the stereotype that older adults are not cognitively capable, those who believe this is true experience greater decrements in both physical and cognitive abilities (e.g., grip strength, hearing abilities, driving abilities, and cognitive speed and agility) compared to participants who do not hold these stereotypes about older adults.

What we can take away is that the mind has a strong impact on the body and also on the mind itself—especially in later life.


Barber SJ. An examination of age-based stereotype threat about cognitive decline: Implications for stereotype-threat research and theory. Perspectives on Psychological Science (2017); 62-90.

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