Stereotyping Poor Memory in Older Adults – Jennifer Kadarisman


Stereotypes are prevalent in our society and is often said that it is based in truth. However, it is a form of prejudgment based on society’s attitudes towards a particular type of person or thing.  One of the most commonly stereotyped groups of people are older adults. Older adults can be seen as slow or grumpy, but most of all forgetful.  For a very long time, older adults have been viewed as people who have poor and terrible memory.  The studies I analyzed in this paper will both negate and confirm the prevailing stereotypes of a deteriorating memory that comes with aging.

Supporting the Stereotype

In this first study, Rowell, Green,Teachman, and Salthouse (2016) investigated the relationship of memory complaints and negative affect across the adult lifespan and in adults with different levels of objective memory performance.  The participants included 3798 adults who were divided into 5 groups (18-39, 40-54, 55-64, 75-99) based on age.  The group of older adults (55-99) were subdivided because older adults have higher rates of negative affect.  In this correlational study, the participants completed memory objective tasks and other cognitive tests in a laboratory session.  The participants did not know the real purpose of the study because they were told that the goal for this study was to learn about aging and cognitive functioning.  In addition to the memory tasks, the participants were asked to complete questionnaires evaluating memory complaints and negative affect.  After the laboratory session and questionnaires, results showed that because older adults are more prone to experience negative affect, there is a greater chance for complaints about a  deteriorating memory (Rowell, Green, Teachman, & Salthouse 2016).  This study supports the stereotype that with aging comes poor memory because the data revealed that the group of older adults possessed more memory complaints, therefore, validating a declining memory. Furthermore, as a person becomes older, the more likely they are to undertake depression, etc., creating a negative perceptions of their own memory.  In addition, if an older adults begins to feel that their memory is declining, the chances for them to experience negative affect is higher (Rowell et al., 2016).  

Additionally, in the recent 2017 research, Beaudoin, Marine, and Desrichard (2017) examined the memory performance of older adults with the pressure of memory self-efficacy (MSE, i.e., the confidence one has in their memory abilities) and task persistence.  They analyzed three different sets of data from three larger studies and collected the measurements to test the mediation hypothesis.  Each of the three studies had different sample sizes, measurements, and methods that allowed their findings to be more generalized, although, each sample only consisted of older adults.  Study 1 included a sample size of 264 older adults from a French longitudinal study of normal aging and were tested in a single interview which focused on memory span.  In Study 2, past memory performance was assessed where 81 of the same participants from Study 1 were used.  In Study 3, the sample used 100 community-dwelling older adults different from the first two studies and addressed episodic memory ability.  For all three studies, participants had to complete an MSE scale and a memory task where study times were recorded. To test memory performance, participants from all three studies were asked to study a list of stimuli for as long as they needed.  They were then asked to perform a 30-s arithmetic distractor task and afterwards asked to orally present as many stimuli as they could remember (Beaudoin, Marine, & Desrichard, 2017).  Results proved that better performance assessments (i.e., higher memory span, episodic memory, etc.) correlates with higher MSE, better recall performance, and longer study time (Beaudoin et al., 2017).  This shows that stable memory abilities or automatic processes are primary roles for increased memory performance.  This study supports the stereotype that older adults have poor memory because it is seen that as age increases, there is a decrease in recall performance.  In addition, MSE and study time were also negatively associated with increasing age and it is confirmed that the relationship between older adult’s MSE and memory performance is interfered by their persistence during encoding (Beaudoin et at., 2017).  

In Padgaonkar, Zanto, Bollinger, and Gazzaley’s study (2017), they aimed to analyze the influence of predictive information on working memory performance in older adults compared to younger adults.  The study involved 20 younger adults (20-32)  and 21 older adults (62-87).  The participants had to complete 3 trials that contained included 2 faces and 2 scenes that were presented one after another.  Between each face and scene, there was a 5-second delay and a probe stimulus.  When a stimulus appeared, each participant was told to either remember or ignore it.  Results revealed that older adults responded with precision in the same range as younger adults.  Older adults had the same capability of ignoring irrelevant information as younger adults did (Padgaonkar, Zanto, & Gazzaley, 2017).  On the other hand, results also expressed that older adults who performed the worst on the trials displayed the greatest declines in both working memory accuracy and response time (Padgaonkar et al., 2017).  This study supports the stereotype that older adults have poor memory because although memory performance for older adults were comparable to younger adults, their reaction times were still much slower.  Additionally, this information shows that predictive cues are not adequate enough to help older adults accomplish working memory performance equivalent to younger adults (Padgaonkar et al., 2017).

Refuting the Stereotype

In the study done by Radvansky, Pettijohn, and Kim (2015), the effect of event boundaries by moving from one room to another was tested on the memory of adults.  It was hypothesized that the memories of older adults would be much more greatly affected than those of younger adults.  This study consisted of 29 younger adults (11 female), whose ages ranged from 18-22, and 16 older adults (10 female), whose ages ranged from 61-84.  In order to complete the study, an experiment was performed.  The independent variable was the virtual simulation and the dependent variable was the memory of the younger and older adults.  The participants were staged in a virtual setting in front of a screen .5m away from them and used headphones to hear footsteps to stimulate a more realistic setting.  In the virtual setting, a total of 55 rooms were programmed and the task for the participants was to pick up an object from the table in the room, move to the next one by moving to the other side of a large room(no shift) or moving across a doorway to next room (shift), place the object on the table, pick up the next object, and so on.  A total of 48 probe trials were inputted where the screen was dimmed to maintain visual of the virtual environment.  Participants had to respond “yes” if the probed object was the one that was currently being carried and “no” to all other probes.  Results showed that both younger and older adults had difficulty remembering the object being carried.  In addition, the degree of difficulty for both age groups were similar (Radvansky, Pettijohn, & Kim, 2015).  Since the effects of the experiment were similar for both younger and older adults, it indicated that memory performance is unaffected by aging.  This refutes the stereotype of older adults having poor memory because the experiment revealed that the normal aging process had no influence over older adults remembering current goal information when moving from one event to another (Radvansky et al., 2015).


Beaudoin, Marine, and Olivier Desrichard. “Memory Self-Efficacy and Memory Performance in Older Adults: The Mediating Role of Task Persistence.” Swiss Journal of Psychology 76, no. 1 (January 2017): 23–33. doi:10.1024/1421-0185/a000188.

Padgaonkar, Namita A., Theodore P. Zanto, Jacob Bollinger, and Adam Gazzaley. “Predictive Cues and Age-Related Declines in Working Memory Performance.” Neurobiology of Aging 49 (January 2017): 31–39. doi:10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2016.09.002.

Radvansky, Gabriel A., Kyle A. Pettijohn, and Joonsung Kim. “Walking through Doorways Causes Forgetting: Younger and Older Adults.” Psychology and Aging 30, no. 2 (June 2015): 259–65. doi:10.1037/a0039259.

Rowell, Shaina F., Jennifer S. Green, Bethany A. Teachman, and Timothy A. Salthouse. “Age Does Not Matter: Memory Complaints Are Related to Negative Affect throughout Adulthood.” Aging & Mental Health 20, no. 12 (December 1, 2016): 1255–63. doi:10.1080/13607863.2015.1078284.


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