Surprising Effects of Ageism

This article highlights some of the lesser-known negative consequences of age stereotypes that permeate society. But first, it examines some of the psychological processes underpinning ageism that older people may face by revealing how people use and apply the category labels 'old' and 'young.'"


Hannah J. Swift
Centre for the Study of Group Processes, School of Psychology, University of Kent

Nearly 50 years ago, Robert N. Butler introduced the term “ageism” to describe prejudice toward older people, old age, and aging as “a form of bigotry we now tend to overlook” —so has anything changed nearly 50 years on?

In the United Kingdom and across Europe, we have established that ageism is the most commonly experienced form of prejudice1, 2. In fact, across 28 countries assessed in the 2008–2009 European Social Survey (ESS), a higher percentage of respondents (34 percent) reported that they had experienced prejudice due to their age than prejudice due to their gender (24 percent) or race or ethnicity (16 percent)2.

Despite this clear evidence that ageism is a significant societal problem, a review we conducted for the UK Government Office for Science revealed ageism is surprisingly under-researched.3 For example, a title search of the term “ageism” in Google Scholar produced far fewer hits than did similar searches for “sexism” or “racism” (see figure 1). Although the volume of ageism research has gathered pace relative to other types of prejudice research over the past 45 years, ageism is still a long way behind in absolute volume.

This article highlights some of the lesser-known negative consequences of age stereotypes that permeate society. But first, it examines some of the psychological processes underpinning ageism that older people may face by revealing how people use and apply the category labels “old” and “young.”

Who Are You Calling Old?

In many cultures the life course is generally segmented by age thresholds to mark changes such as participation in education, work, and parenthood. These age thresholds are important social markers and organizing factors in society, which are reinforced by legislation, norms, and customs. But they can vary between cultures and countries (for example, age of consent, voting age, retirement age). However, an important implication of these thresholds is that they provide a system of categorization that immediately creates the potential for generalization, stereotyping, and discrimination. This is because when people categorize others, they psychologically exaggerate similarities among members within a category and exaggerate differences from members of other categories.

In the case of age, the application of thresholds is likely to reinforce perceptions that all “older people” share similar stereotypic characteristics. An important initial finding from our research was to establish the variability and fluidity in people’s definitions of “old age” and “youth.” For example, ESS respondents’ estimates of the ages at which youth ends and at which old age begins are shown in figure 2 and reveal that people’s perceptions of these boundaries vary according to the respondent’s own age.

In conjunction with this psychological tendency to shift the category boundaries as one gets older, we also found that people's perceptions of age boundaries differed greatly across different European countries (see figure 3). For instance, in the UK a person is likely to be regarded as “old” when he or she reaches 59 years of age, but in Greece a person would typically not be considered old until age 68.

This suggests that strong cultural frames or norms also affect these perceptions. We are currently investigating what drives these national differences, having already ruled out explanations in terms of national differences in life expectancy, retirement age, inequality, productivity4. What is clear is that even the simple categorization of other people as young or old is affected strongly by one's own age, in conjunction with the social context.

Pity You Reached Old Age

Age categories are more than labels—they are also imbued with both negative and positive meanings that denote status and power. They are also associated with stereotypes and expectations, which form the basis of prejudice and discrimination. The most common negative stereotypes relate to older adults’ competence, whereby physical and cognitive functioning is assumed to decline with age. Other commonly held perceptions are that older people lack creativity; that they are unable to learn new skills, unproductive, and a burden on family and society; and that they are ill, frail, dependent, asexual, lonely, and socially isolated. Common positive stereotypes define older people as wise, generous, friendly, moral, experienced, loyal, and reliable. However, these positive images are unlikely to be sufficient to prevent discrimination. This is because of  the general mixed combination of perceiving older people to be less competent (negative), but warm and friendly (positive) generates emotional reactions that result in a paternalistic form of prejudice in which older people are more likely to be pitied and patronized.

Consequences of Age Stereotypes

The inevitability of aging means that stereotypes that were once focused on “other” older people ultimately become applied to the self. This “self-stereotyping” causes people to restrict their horizons because they see themselves as “too young” or "too old” to pursue certain activities or roles. Stereotypes can also have a detrimental impact on an individual’s self-image, confidence, self-esteem, health, and abilities.

Some of our experiments have explored the consequences of the fear or threat people experience when they feel like they might confirm a negative age stereotype (a well-researched phenomenon known as stereotype threat). In these experiments people ages 60 and over were asked to complete a cognitive test (for example, of math or memory ability). However, for half of the participants, we introduced stereotype threat simply by telling them that their performance would be compared with the performance of younger participants. We predicted that the mere inclusion of the comparison with "younger people" would be sufficient to invoke old-age stereotypes and to produce anxiety about underperformance. Consequently, we expected those who experienced the threat manipulation to underperform on these tests. In four studies, we found that the threat significantly degraded performance compared with the control conditions (in which participants were told they would be compared with "others"), and this difference was partly accounted for by participants’ increased levels of anxiety due to the threat5. These effects even extend to physical strength. In another study of participants ages 67 and over, we found that the threat manipulation reduced their grip strength (measured by a hand dynamometer) reduced by as much as 50 percent6.

We recently conducted a meta-analytic review of all the available studies of age-based stereotype threat. This established that the effect of stereotype threat on older adults’ performance is reliable and robust7. This finding has significant practical implications across many domains, because many of the tasks measured are used as indicative measures of an individual’s cognitive and even physical ability and functionality. For example, any time an older person is subjected to a selection or diagnostic test (whether for medical diagnosis or occupational selection), implicit or direct age comparisons may harm his or her performance. Age-based stereotype threat is just one example of the ways that age stereotypes can be consequential. In another study, we (and others, for example, Levy et al., 1999–2000) found that triggering negative old-age stereotypes even outside the perceiver’s conscious awareness can be sufficient to reduce his or her motivation for a longer life. However, the wider point is that age-based prejudice is a substantial challenge for society as well for as individuals, and it is an area that should be increasingly prioritized for research and intervention.

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1) D. Abrams, T. Eilola, and H. Swift, “Attitudes to Age in Britain 2004–08,” Department of Work and Pensions, Research Report No. 599. Crown, 2009.
2) D. Abrams, P.S. Russell, M. Vauclair, and H. Swift, Ageism in Europe: Findings from the European Social Survey (London: Age UK, 2011).
3) D. Abrams, H.J. Swift, R.A. Lamont, and L. Drury, “The Barriers to and Enablers of Positive Attitudes to Ageing and Older People, at the Societal and Individual Level” Foresight Government Office for Science, accessed 2015,
4) D. Abrams, C-M. Vauclair, and H. Swift, “Predictors of Attitudes to Age in Europe,” Department of Work and Pensions, Research Report No. 735. Crown, 2011.
5) H.J. Swift, D. Abrams, and S. Marques, “Threat or Boost? Social Comparison Affects Older People’s Performance Differently Depending on Task Domain,” Journal of Gerontology B: Psychological & Social Sciences (2013). doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbs044.
6) H.J. Swift, R. Lamont, and D. Abrams, “Are They Half as Strong as They Used to Be? An Experiment Testing Whether Age-Related Social Comparisons Impair Older People’s Hand Grip Strength and Persistence,” British Medical Journal Open (2012). doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2012-001064.
7) R.A. Lamont, H.J. Swift, and D. Abrams, “A Review and Meta-Analysis of Age-Based Stereotype Threat: Negative Stereotypes, Not Facts, Do the Damage,” Psychology & Aging (2015). doi: 10.1037/a0038586.

About the author

Hannah J. Swift is a research fellow at the School of Psychology, University of Kent. Her research focuses on ageism, attitudes to age and age stereotypes, and it has been disseminated widely to academic and policy audiences. She is a core member of EURAGE, which contributed to the design and analysis of the “Ageism” module in the European Social Survey. 


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