In two studies, researchers examined evidence that age-related stereotypes have a surprising effect on recall and memory in older adults.
In the first study, approximately 60 older adults and 60 undergraduate students completed a memory test, then watched a video and listened to a brief synopsis of the video. Participants were then presented with information that either suggested memory declines with age (high stereotype threat) or that certain aspects of memory do not decline with age (low threat), and were instructed to recall information from the video and/or the synopsis. After the recall task, participants again completed the initial memory test.
Contrary to the initial hypothesis, stereotype threat did not affect older adults’ performance on the memory test. However, older adults in the high threat condition made fewer correct responses in the recall task than those in the low threat condition. Younger adults performed similarly under both conditions. Interestingly, while examining the type of error older adults made, the researchers found that the older participants were significantly more likely to leave answers blank when under stereotype threat.
The researchers conducted a follow-up study to examine this finding more closely. The procedures remained the same, but the memory test was omitted and participants were required to respond to every item in the recall task.
Results indicated that stereotype threat had no effect on older adults’ ability to recall information from the video. This suggests that older adults under stereotype threat are more cautious in sharing information they are unsure of, but are no less accurate when required to respond. Older adults under stereotype threat actually turned out to be more accurate in identifying the source of correctly recalled information (video or synopsis) than those not under threat.
While much research has demonstrated that age-related stereotypes have negative effects on older adults, evidence from this study suggests that older adults are able to accurately recall information even when under threat. The authors suggested that when witnesses withhold information they are unsure of (such as when under stereotype threat), this may lead to more accurate testimony. The ability to more accurately recall where the information came from may be beneficial as well.
Thomas, AK, Smith, AM, and Mazerolle, M. The unexpected relationship between retrieval demands and memory performance when older adults are faced with age-related stereotypes. Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences (2018); 00(00): 1-10.