Self-stereotyping - an Age Old Problem

06/03/2014 14:48 GMT | Updated 06/05/2014 10:59 BST

"I imagine hell like this: Italian punctuality, German humour and English wine", said Peter Ustinov, subverting some familiar stereotypes.

When we stereotype we are making attributions about a person or entity purely on the basis of the category to which they belong and in the absence of any further information.

However a lot of people that would be horrified if they thought that they were actively stereotyping people are doing it insidiously and subtly every day. But unbeknownst to them, they are doing it to themselves.

There is a significant body of research indicating that, over time, people self-stereotype. This is a process whereby beliefs about a group, say older people, are learned early in childhood, become reinforced in adulthood and eventually become internalised, so that in older age, old-age stereotypes, for example, become old-age self-stereotypes. That is to say we see ourselves more consistent with stereotypes about a group to which we belong than we otherwise would.

So whilst it may be true that advertisers and marketers can be accused of promoting the same old stereotypes when it comes to older people, it's actually an open goal for marketers. The target audience knows no better and is actively perpetuating the myth whether that be by walking more slowly or performing poorly on tests of competence. This is exactly what occurs and it's not good for the individual or society.

Most people nowadays are aware that it's not acceptable to be (openly) racist or sexist. However, Harvard University developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT) that has shown stereotypes about age are stronger and more resistant to change than those about race or gender. In fact age prejudice is socially condoned; it's not uncommon to see birthday cards bemoaning the unfortunate fact that someone is a year older.

Of course, there has long been an evolutionary benefit to stereotyping. Stereotypes are central to the way our brains have evolved. It would be hard to live a normal life without them. Finding yourself face to face with a lion on the savannah, or face to face with a group of young men with hoodies loitering at the entrance to a dark alleyway, it makes sense to have a powerful, instinctive emotional reaction and to act on it swiftly.

But the stereotypes we have about ageing lead many of us to believe that older people are incompetent across a whole range of domains. Older people are evaluated less positively than younger people by individuals of all ages and there's clear evidence for the double standard of ageing whereby older women are evaluated more negatively than older men.

Research conducted in the US by Susan Fiske and her team at Princeton found that people differentiated groups in society along two dimensions, competence and warmth. The category 'elderly' was grouped with 'disabled', 'retarded', 'blind', 'housecleaners and 'housewives' as rating low on competence but high on warmth. In situations where an older person was rated as competent they were often rated lower on warmth, suggesting that older people are only evaluated positively if they pose no obvious competitive threat.

Given that human beings neither could, nor perhaps should, ever be wholly free from all stereotypes - whether about lions or a group of hooded young men or even about ageing - it matters that we don't reinforce negative and unfounded stereotypes that might have a detrimental effect on our own and others' behavior towards us.

We need to take a long look at our attitude towards ageing, starting with ourselves.