A mindful perspective on old age stereotypes?

Our youth-obsessed culture has certain beliefs about the old: grumpy old men, crazy old cat ladies, “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”, and a general belief that being old means you are rapidly deteriorating in every way.

A stereotypical old lady. Source unknown.

A stereotypical old lady. Artist unknown to me.

This “ageism” is so strong that it can have some surprisingly powerful unconscious effects. From the lab of John Bargh, a major investigator of our unconscious minds at work, came surprising evidence that thinking about old age could make you act just a little bit older – by walking slower. Although this study has recently become controversial due to a difficulty in reproducing the findings, it has inspired at least a few researchers as a potential way of looking at how mindfulness might reduce some old-age stereotypes.

For this study, researchers wanted to see if people in a mindfulness-induced state would walk faster after viewing pictures of old people – suggesting less of an old-age stereotype – than people in a non-mindful state. The trick, of course, is actually creating a state of mindfulness. The researchers thought they might do it by having people sort photographs of people in early adulthood (not yet having reached the milestone of 30) and late adulthood (qualifying for the senior citizen discount at restaurants near you!). Some people sorted these photographs by age, while others sorted some by age, gender, attractiveness, and race. (There were two other ways of sorting, but these will give you the main idea). The people who sorted by age walked more slowly to a new table, while the people who sorted in several different ways walked relatively quickly. The researchers concluded that inducing mindfulness made people less prone to stereotypes.

The study is intriguing, but I don’t know that this tells us anything about mindfulness. Sorting pictures in four different ways doesn’t seem like it would induce “mindfulness” as a general state of mind, the way I have come to know and love the phrase. It seems instead like a specific form of awareness about just this situation: these people are more than just old, they are also female, or intelligent, or a minority. Competing stereotypes may make for a more complex variety of walking behaviors (although probably not as complex as found in the ministry of silly walks), but it doesn’t make a very compelling case that people became mindfully aware of their surroundings in any meaningful way, simply by considering multiple facets of what people are like.

Fortunately, there is a hint of evidence that mindfulness could help with stereotypes. The researchers also administered a mindfulness survey, and two surveys about age stereotypes. People who reported being more mindful were also more likely to say that the elderly could solve problems or learn something new, and were less likely to agree with negative statements about the old, like “Many old people live in the past”. This has all of the usual problems with correlational surveys (are they just saying the things they think would be more socially acceptable?), but leaves at least a glimmer of hope that the mindful among us might also be the tolerant among us.

Djikic, M, Langer, E. J., & Stapleton, S. F. (2008). Reducing stereotyping through mindfulness: Effects on automatic stereotype-activated behaviors. Journal of Adult Development, 15, 106-111.


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