The resulting cut on her leg, though bloody, proved superficial. But when her grandmother suggested to the grocery owner that he not leave crates about, he responded that old people fall all the time, and maybe they shouldn’t be walking around.
“The message stayed with her, and it seemed to impact her behavior,” Dr. Levy noticed. Her grandmother appeared to question her competence, asking Dr. Levy to take over chores she normally handled herself. The incident prompted Dr. Levy to contemplate how cultural values and people’s own ideas about age might affect them.
We absorb these stereotypes from an early age, through disparaging media portrayals and fairy tales about wicked old witches. But institutions — employers, health care organizations, housing policies — express a similar prejudice, enforcing what is called “structural ageism,” Dr. Levy said. Reversing that will require sweeping changes — an “age liberation movement,” she added.
But she has found reason for optimism: Damaging ideas about age can change. Using the same subliminal techniques that measure stereotypical attitudes, her team has been able to enhance a sense of competence and value among older people. Researchers in many other countries have replicated their results.
“You can’t create beliefs, but you can activate them,” Dr. Levy said, by exposing people to words like “active” and “full of life,” instead of “grumpy” or “helpless,” to describe older adults.
Could a society undertake such a mission? How long could the benefits of such interventions last? Would people need regular boosters to help associate aging with experience and possibilities instead of with nervous jokes?
The research, by Dr. Levy and other scholars, continues.
“Even though toddlers already have negative stereotypes about age, they’re not set in stone,” Dr. Levy said. “They’re malleable. We can shift them.”