When Positive Aging Imagery Turns Negative

Prior research has shown that exposure to some positive portrayals of aging can affect have positive outcomes consequences in for older adults, such as better performance on memory tests and lower cardiovascular stress. Researchers have suggested that exposure to positive portrayals of aging causes individuals to internalize these positive stereotypes. This internalization of positive stereotypes causes them to behave accordingly, leading to better performance on tests of memory and physical tasks.

Recently, however, researchers looked into whether overly positive depictions of aging could have the opposite of the intended effects. These researchers wanted to know if the beneficial effects associated with positive portrayals of aging would remain even when the portrayals were so positive that they were viewed as unrealistic. To do this they conducted experiments that would expose participants of all ages to images of older adults that had been classified as extremely positive, positive, neutral, and negative. The following examples of each category for physical activity were given:

-Neutral: An older adult carrying one bag
-Positive: The same older adult carrying two bags
-Extremely positive: The same older adult carrying two heavy bags
-Negative: The same older adult holding a walking stick and having difficulty carrying a bag

Similar sets of pictures were presented depicting socioemotional situations and intellectual situations. In addition to being presented with these images, participants were asked to rate how realistic an image was, how well they felt they performed compared to what the images depicted, and how positively or negatively they perceived their own aging process.


When the participants were asked to rank the realism of each of the photos they were shown, they ranked the extremely positive photos as the most unrealistic. Older adults also indicated that they felt themselves to be performing the worst compared to the extremely positive photos, and best compared to the negative depictions. The participants also spent the most time looking at the extremely positive picture, and the more the participant viewed the image as unrealistic, the more time was spent looking at that image. An interesting additional wrinkle to these findings is that as the age of the study’s participants increased, they looked at the extremely positive image to a lesser extent. The researchers also found that for older adults, the amount of time associated with looking at the positive image, but not the extremely positive image, was associated with less negative ratings of participants’ perception of how well they were aging. This led the researchers to conclude that “compared with positive portrayals of old age, extremely positive portrayals of old age may be less likely to have an effect on older adults, for two reasons: First, older adults gazed less at extremely positive portrayals when they perceived them as being less realistic. Second, although positive portrayals of old age were associated with less negative perception of personal aging among older adults, extremely positive portrayals of old age did not have such an association.”

The researchers then expanded their study to examine physiological reactions to different portrayals of aging, by measuring participants’ cardiovascular stress. Here they found that for older adults (and only older adults), viewing positive portrayals of older adults had a positive, calming effect on their cardiovascular stress. Viewing extremely positive portrayals did not have this effect, nor did viewing neutral or negative portrayals.

Lastly, the researchers examined the effect of different portrayals of older adults on memory performance. In these memory tests, the researchers found that for older adults, exposure to extremely positive portrayals of old age lowered performance on memory tests, while positive portrayals enhanced performance on the tests.


Here we have an accumulation of experimental evidence that suggests that while positive portrayals of aging are associated with measurable beneficial impacts on older adults, including on measure of physiological stress and on memory, such beneficial impacts disappear when portrayals are extremely positive and judged to be unrealistic. Extremely positive portrayals not only attracted less attention from older adults, but were also associated with worse performance on tests of older adults’ memory. Within the senior living and aging services industry, the importance of positive portrayals of older adults has long been recognized, and this research supports the importance of positive portrayals, while also cautioning that overly positive portrayals may prove to be counterproductive. The most beneficial impact of positive portrayals appears to be in the sweet spot of portrayals being positive without being too unrealistic.


Fung HH, Tianyuan L, Zhang X, et al. Positive portrayals of old age do not always have positive consequences. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences (2015); 70(6): 913–924.

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