Almost everyone has at least one social identity that is associated with a negative stereotype. For some people it is their age, for others it is their race, weight, religion, socioeconomic status or political affiliation. Problematically, according t stereotype threat theory, when people encounter these negative stereotypes they often underperform compared to their potential, and in doing so inadvertently confirm the stereotype. For example, older adults are stereotyped as having poor memory abilities. When this stereotype becomes salient to older adults their memory performance tends to decrease. This has serious clinical implications. In one study, stereotype threat increased the proportion of older adults scoring below the clinical cut-off for dementia from 14 to 70%. Given that 20% of Americans will be over the age of 65 by 2030, and that annual dementia screenings are now covered by Medicare, it is important to understand why stereotype threat impairs older adults'performance and how stereotype-threat-related performance deficits can be ameliorated.
In Aim 1, we test the role of regulatory focus in contributing to older adults'stereotype threat effects. Regulatory focus theory leads to the counterintuitive hypothesis that although stereotype threat impairs performance when the task emphasizes gains, it should improve performance when the task emphasizes losses. Our preliminary data supports this;stereotype threat impaired older adults'memory when remembering led to gains, but improved memory when forgetting led to losses. In this application we test the generalizability of these results by examining how stereotype threat affects older adults'performance in other cognitive (e.g., verbal fluency, visuospatial skills, decision quality) and non-cognitive (i.e., screened vision and hearing) domains. Many of these domains have not previously been examined. If our regulatory focus predictions are consistently supported, it would suggest that emphasizing the importance of avoiding errors during assessments could be a simple, no-cost clinical intervention to eliminate stereotype threat effects.
In Aim 2, we examine the contribution of physiological arousal to older adults'stereotype threat effects. Recently we proposed an arousal-biased competition (ABC) theory. According to our ABC theory, arousal increases the processing of high priority stimuli and decreases processing of low priority stimuli. Preliminary studies support this hypothesis. Of relevance to this application, based upon the regulatory focus theory we predict that under stereotype threat loss-related information is high priority and gain-related information is low priority. Thus, according to ABC theory, arousal should enhance the regulatory focus effects predicted above. Finally, Aim 3 is to examine the functional implications of stereotype threat for older adults. Thus, the domains in which we test our Aim 1 and 2 hypotheses each have relevance for older adults'health, practical, and financial well-being. We also test the hypothesi that genetic testing for Alzheimer's disease carries the risk of inducing stereotype threat and reducing memory performance in asymptomatic, healthy older adults.

Public Health Relevance

When older adults encounter negative stereotypes about age-related cognitive declines they often underperform on memory tests and are therefore more likely to meet diagnostic screening criteria for dementia. The proposed research aims to elucidate the mechanism(s) underlying these stereotype-threat-related performance impairments for older adults, and determine whether the mechanisms underlying older adults'stereotype threat effects are consistent across domains. This will enable the creation of stereotype threat interventions designed specifically for older adults, and identify which older adults should be targeted for these interventions.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Aging (NIA)
Research Project (R01)
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Social Psychology, Personality and Interpersonal Processes Study Section (SPIP)
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Nielsen, Lisbeth
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University of Southern California
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Los Angeles
United States
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Barber, Sarah J; Castrellon, Jaime J; Opitz, Philipp et al. (2017) Younger and older adults' collaborative recall of shared and unshared emotional pictures. Mem Cognit 45:716-730
Barber, Sarah J (2017) An Examination of Age-Based Stereotype Threat About Cognitive Decline. Perspect Psychol Sci 12:62-90
Barber, Sarah J; Opitz, Philipp C; Martins, Bruna et al. (2016) Thinking about a limited future enhances the positivity of younger and older adults' recall: Support for socioemotional selectivity theory. Mem Cognit 44:869-82
Barber, Sarah J; Lee, Soohyoung Rain (2015) Stereotype Threat Lowers Older Adults' Self-Reported Hearing Abilities. Gerontology 62:81-5
Barber, Sarah J; Mather, Mara; Gatz, Margaret (2015) How Stereotype Threat Affects Healthy Older Adults' Performance on Clinical Assessments of Cognitive Decline: The Key Role of Regulatory Fit. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci 70:891-900