Reminders of Age Stereotypes Have Mixed Effects on Cognitive Performance

Stereotypes harm groups and individuals in many ways. Aside from mistreatment by others who hold negative stereotypes, members of stereotyped groups are also internally affected by stereotypes through what psychologists call “stereotype threat.” Stereotype threat refers to a tendency observed by psychologists: when members of stereotyped groups are reminded of a given stereotype, they experience cognitive disruption that harms their ability to perform to their abilities. For example, previous research on stereotype threat in older adults has shown that, when reminded of stereotypes of cognitive decline, older adults perform significantly more poorly on cognitive tests.

The influence of stereotype threat on older adult cognitive performance may have clinical implications; some studies suggest that, in clinical diagnostic testing, the performance impact of stereotype threat may cause many individuals to be inaccurately diagnosed with dementia. To explore how stereotype threat influences older adults’ cognitive performance, researchers tested two different hypotheses on how stereotype threat occurs, by administering tests of working memory to a group of older adults under various experimental conditions.

First, all participants were given a test of working verbal memory, to establish a baseline score. Then, to provoke stereotype threat, participants were given fictitious articles to read that discussed memory declining with age. After reading the articles, participants were again given a test of their working memory. Half of the participants were given the opportunity to earn money by performing well on the tests (gain-based). The other half of participants were given a sum of money before being administered the same tests, with the condition that mistakes made would lead to them losing money (loss-based).

The researchers then compared how participants across the two different conditions—the loss-based system, and the gain-based system—performed both before and after the stereotype threat. Individuals in the gain-based system performed significantly more poorly after reading the news articles, while participants in the loss-based system actually performed better after reading the articles.

Based on the improved performance of participants with the loss-based condition, stereotype threat appeared to make participants more vigilant against risk, rather than interfering with their abilities. When the test was framed as an opportunity to gain something, however, stereotype threat did interfere with participants’ cognitive abilities.

What is often limitation in similar laboratory studies—the fact that participants were assessed on a test in a laboratory setting, rather than on a direct real-life task—is in fact a bit of a strength in this study, given that the performance of older adults in similar test settings is often used for clinical diagnosis of dementia. Another strength is that the researchers replicated the study (i.e., repeated the study with a separate sample of participants) and found the same results the second time around.


Barber SJ and Mather M. Stereotype threat can enhance, as well as impair, older adults’ memory. Psychological Science. (2013). DOI:10.1177/0956797613479611

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