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Social Cognition - Stereotypes And Cognitive Functioning

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Finally, the literature suggests that there is a negative impact of age-related stereotypes on cognitive functioning in older adults. Such stereotypes represent a set of socially shared beliefs about personal attributes and behaviors of older adults. Studies examining age-related differences in the content and structure of stereotypes find that older and young adults hold similar age-related negative stereotypes, such as slow-thinking, senile, incompetent, and feeble. However, older adults display more complex representations of the category ‘‘older adults,’’ including both positive (e.g., wise, dependable) and negative stereotypes.

Studies have examined under what conditions stereotypes are activated, and if they are, how they affect behavior and social judgments. Claude Steele and colleagues found that stigmatized groups such as African Americans and women are vulnerable to fears of being judged in accordance with negative stereotypes about the group to which they belong. This in turn impairs performance relevant to the stereotype associated with their group, such as academic ability. Similarly, Becca Levy found that automatically activated stereotypes about aging and memory adversely affect the cognitive performance of older adults. Although at this point there is a need for replication for this study, it does suggest that social factors such as negative stereotypes may have some effect on decline in cognitive performance although not account for all of it.

In conclusion, research on social cognition and aging underscores the importance of social factors as potential mechanisms contributing to age-related differences in cognitive functioning. In addition, it suggests that it is important not to limit explanations of changes in social cognition to cognitive processing variables alone. The social factors highlighted above influence social information processing in important ways including how, when, and why older adults attend to specific information and how this information will be used.



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CARSTENSEN, L. L., and TURK-CHARLES, S. ‘‘The Salience of Emotion across the Adult Life Span.’’ Psychology and Aging 9 (1994): 259–264.

GILBERT, D., and MALONE, P. ‘‘The Correspondence Bias.’’ Psychological Bulletin 117 (1995): 21–38.

HESS, T. M. ‘‘Cognitive and Knowledge-Based Influences on Social Representations.’’ In Social Cognition and Aging. Edited by T. M. Hess and F. Blanchard-Fields. San Diego: Academic Press, 1999. Pages 239–267.

LEVY, B. ‘‘Improving Memory in Old Age through Implicit Stereotyping.’’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71 (1996): 1092–1107.

MISCHEL, W., and SHODA, Y. ‘‘A Cognitive-Affective System Theory of Personality: Reconceptualizing Situations, Dispositions, Dynamics, and Invariance in Personality Structure.’’ Psychological Review 102 (1995): 246–268.

STEELE, C. ‘‘A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance.’’ American Psychologist 52 (1997): 613–629.

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