Cognitive- Related Stereotypes of Aging Men and Women in America by Tatum Mezosi



elderly-man-old-worried-sad-depressed-thinkingCognitive- Related Stereotypes of Aging Men and Women in America

Stereotypes often have quite a significant effect on older adults, or aging men and women, greater than we expect.  When thinking of older adults, various stereotypes typically come to mind such as lack thereof or worsening cognitive abilities, or becoming forgetful and demented.  As one ages, it is believed that cognition worsens, one’s performance in many different tasks and abilities is often affected, along with many other negative implications about growing old.  One belief I have about older adults, whom I work with very closely on a day-to-day basis is that aging affects everyone differently, and some more severely than others. Many factors come into play such as how well one has cared for themselves over their lifetime, their socioeconomic status, mental health issues they may face, and much more.  For example, my great grandfather is ninety-four years young and still drives as needed, remembers experiences from his life from fifty or more years ago, and is fully capable of completing many cognitive tasks as if he was a middle-aged adult again.  Although some may remain close to perfection when it comes to their cognitive abilities, others may worsen but a major factor in adults is their fear of confirming the stereotype that floods their specific age group. Furthermore, the studies I researched have indicated that there is a significant effect of age-based stereotypes on the performance of older adults and when primed for negative age stereotypes, they show performance deficits on memory recall tasks as well as various other cognitive functions (Hehman & Bugental, 2013).  Lastly, research has shown that older adults rank the ability to maintain their cognitive and physical functioning as the factor most important to their quality of life (Hehman & Bugental, 2013).

Age-Based Stigmas and Stereotype Threat

One study showed us that the stereotype of older men and women and how their driving accuracy decreases as they age indicated that the threat of age-stigmas is the biggest factor to them failing and running into obstacles more than them doing so as if they were driving on their own.   This is defined as “stereotype threat” which means one is at risk of confirming a stereotype specific to their own group (Lambert et al., 2016).  In a recent study conducted by Hehman and Bugental (2013), they tested specific responses following priming of negative and positive implications in younger adults versus older adults.  The older adults who participated in this study were from senior centers and retirement communities, ranging from sixty-two to ninety-two years of age.   These authors predicted that the outcomes of the older adults would show decreased performance or lack thereof as the older adults believed these tasks were better performed by those of a specific and younger age group, and that their outcomes are controlled by powerful others, confirming stereotype threat.  Furthermore, to rule out any potential variables that could negatively influence this study, Hehman and Bugental introduced the block design task (WAIS-III) as scores taken from the experiment may have been susceptible to one’s stress or the adult may have been exposed to stereotype threat.  This design task asks participants to replicate pictures of two-color designs with blocks, testing their accuracy and cognition prior to the upcoming experiment.   The experiment then began by the framing of these individuals of specific cognitive tasks that would traditionally be thought of as age-specific (Hehman & Bugental, 2013).  The older adults completed the tasks.  The results indicated that those participants exposed to a negative age-relevant prime showed deficits in performance when asked to complete a cognitive task, confirming the stereotype. “The belief that powerful others control their life outcomes also resulted in performance deficits, therefore, aging adults succumb to the additive effects of (a) an age-relevant threat and (b) being under the perceived control of others” (Hehman & Bugental, 2013).

Cognition in Relation to Driving

First, one reviewed study conducted by Lambert et al. (2016) reviewed cognition and driving performance through the use of simulators and cognitive tasks throughout a two-week period.  These participants were unknowingly assigned to a stereotype threat or a control condition and then were asked to take a fifteen-minute drive and follow specific instructions given to them before and during the drive.  They then returned to the lab at a later date for further cognitive testing on memory.  These authors concluded that working memory capacity of an older adult under a stereotype threat resulted in significantly negative differences in comparison to those participants in the control group who did not face a stereotype threat.  Furthermore, the results also indicated that older adult drivers who have lower working memory capacity faced slowed reaction times in terms of braking, further confirming the stereotype that older adults’ cognitive abilities decline as they age (Lambert et al., 2016).

Cognitive Assessments

This study, unlike the others, tested various cognitive domains such as spatial working memory, episodic memory, verbal working memory, and grammatical reasoning (Ferreira, Owen, Mohan, Corbett, & Ballard, 2015).  The requirements for this study were access to a computer and the Internet as well as having basic computer literacy skills.  According to Ferreira and colleagues, 65,431 adults participated in this study, ranging from eighteen to ninety years of age. These participants were to complete various online tasks and questionnaires, testing their different cognitive fields.  For example, to test grammatical reasoning, participants had to quickly determine, in a short amount of time, whether or not a statement was correct or incorrect about a given picture.

The results obtained from this study suggested that as one ages, their cognitive abilities such as grammatical reasoning and episodic memory were, in fact, affected by their age, however, one’s spatial working memory and verbal working memory showed no correlation to worsening as one ages (Ferreira et al., 2015).

Conclusion and Future Study

After extensive research, we can conclude that the threat of older adults potentially confirming a stereotype aimed towards them can have a negative effect on older adults, their cognitive abilities, and other key factors, such as driving when put to the test.  I believe, however, that these stereotypes play potentially the biggest role in society and in older adults, not necessarily how old they are.

In order to gain a complete understanding as to if age actually affects an older adults’ cognitive abilities, we first must diminish stereotypes along with the threat of confirming a stereotype.  Secondly, unlike all the studies I examined, except one, tested all the different cognitive domains of a human-being. For example, to obtain more accurate results, testing in all cognitive fields, such as grammatical reasoning, spatial working memory, verbal working memory, and episodic memory should be included in each study.


Ferreira, N., Owen, A., Mohan, A., Corbett, A., & Ballard, C. (2015). Associations between

cognitively stimulating leisure activities, cognitive function, and age-related cognitive decline. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 30(4), 422-430. doi:10.1002/gps.4155

Hehman, J. A., & Bugental, D. B. (2013). ‘Life stage-specific’ variations in performance in response to age stereotypes. Developmental Psychology, 49(7), 1396-1406. doi:10.1037/a0029559

Lambert, A. E., Watson, J. M., Stefanucci, J. K., Ward, N., Bakdash, J. Z., & Strayer, D. L. (2016). Stereotype threat impairs older adult driving. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30(1), 22-28. doi:10.1002/acp.3162

Schmader, T., Johns, M., & Forbes, C. (2008). An integrated model of stereotype threat effects

on performance. Psychological Review, 115, 336–356. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.115.2.336

Yeung, N., & von Hippel, C. (2008). Stereotype threat increases the likelihood that female

drivers in a simulator run over jaywalkers. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 40(2), 667–674. doi:10.1016/j.aap.2007.09.003.


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