As people get older, they show a relative preference to remember positive information over negative information. In two experiments, we tested whether the positivity of older adults’ memory is affected by stereotype threat about age-related cognitive declines. We also tested whether highlighting a positive aging stereotype (older adults are wise) would inoculate older adults from stereotype threat’s adverse effects.
In Experiments 1 and 2, we manipulated whether stereotypes about age-related cognitive decline were highlighted (stereotype threat) or mitigated (stereotype alleviation). In Experiment 2, we included a third condition (intervention + stereotype threat), which highlighted positive and negative aging stereotypes. Participants then saw emotionally evocative pictures and completed a memory test.
In both experiments, stereotype threat selectively reduced older adults’ memory for positive pictures but did not affect their memory for negative pictures. This eliminated the positivity effect (i.e., the Age × Valence interaction; Experiment 1). Our positive stereotype intervention did not reduce stereotype threat’s adverse effect (Experiment 2).
Our findings show that the positivity effect is more robust when testing situations minimize stereotype threat. They also suggest that health interventions designed to capitalize on the positivity effect should ensure that ageist stereotypes are mitigated in the environment.