In a study that earned the 2019 Gold Mather LifeWays Innovative Research on Aging Award, researchers surveyed 767 adults age 18 to 92 about their implicit biases toward younger or older adults. Before answering survey questions, however, participants read and summarized one of five short paragraphs that delivered a message about aging. The goal was to assess the effectiveness of different types of public messages that can be used to alter people’s implicit biases—or attitudes and stereotypes that people buy into without conscious awareness.
Three of the paragraphs targeted ageism by describing aging as “building momentum” through accumulation of knowledge and skills, the importance of intergenerational interaction, or explaining how ageist attitudes can develop at a young age. The other two paragraphs were used as controls and contained either general information about older adults or bird migration.
Overall, participants who read any of the targeted messages showed reduced implicit age bias compared to those who read the control message about bird migration. However, only the “building momentum” message reduced implicit biases compared to the aging facts message. This means the intergenerational and ageist attitude messages didn’t influence implicit biases beyond any sort of content related to aging, as in the aging facts message. Interestingly, there were no differences in implicit bias for older or younger adults in the building momentum group.
The building momentum message was the only one that contained descriptions of older adults that are counter to general stereotypes, and implied that older and younger adults are basically the same. The researchers suggest that this is what drove the reduction in age-bias compared to the other messages.
This was a fairly brief intervention, but it was successful in reducing implicit age biases (although did not eliminate them). However, it is unclear how long this effect would last. Still, this evidence is promising, and more frequent and widespread messaging like this may have a positive impact on reducing ageism.
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