Assessing our external world and the people in it is a daily activity we all engage in to navigate the terrain of life. Little research, however, has been done to understand exactly how our perceptions of others and ourselves change over the life span.
A recent review article in Psychology and Aging begins to formulate some ideas on this topic by looking in-depth across several prior studies in this area. The authors’ preliminary conclusions are that older adults and younger adults appear to view older adults in a fairly similar manner. The authors emphasize that we as perceivers are heavily influenced by the age-related physicalities of the people we come into contact with. Because of this, both younger and older adults are prone to stereotyping individuals based on their age.
This perception bias works like this: age (or another visible variable, such as race), acts as what’s called a “proximal cue” which is used to infer traits or states of the group or individual in question. These decision-making and judgment cues help perceivers assess individuals in a timely manner, rather than overwhelming the perceiver’s brain with large amounts of less useful data (e.g., what color pants the person in question is wearing and other similarly superficial data). From what researchers can tell, both younger and older minds automatically engage in data sifting to keep taxation of the brain at bay.
In sum, based on this review of relevant research, the process of social perception looks to be more invariant than dissimilar across the age of the perceiver. Thus, age is an influential cue that individuals in all walks of life use to make inferences.