'Stereotype threat' hurts older adults' perceptions of their hearing abilities

The more older adults are exposed to negative stereotypes about hearing loss, the less confident they are in their own ability to hear, according to new research from a San Francisco State University psychologist.

In an online test, adults in their late 50s and 60s who were exposed to negative stereotypes about older adults and hearing loss give their own hearing abilities lower ratings than those who were not exposed to the stereotypes.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Sarah Barber

Assistant Professor of Psychology Sarah Barber.
Photo: Jonathan Riggs

The findings, published in the journal Gerontology, demonstrate the impact that "stereotype threat" -- when someone underperforms compared to their ability because he or she is worried that their performance could confirm a negative stereotype -- may have on a rapidly growing segment of the population.

"As people start aging into the older bracket, that's when these stereotype-threat effects start to emerge about old age," said Sarah Barber, an assistant professor of psychology and lead author of the study. "It's people in their late 50s and 60s who, even if they don't necessarily classify themselves as older, are starting to be aware of the fact that they are about to enter that new age label."

Widely studied as it relates to students and underrepresented minorities, stereotype threat has been less researched in older adults, said Barber, who runs the Cognition and Aging Lab at SF State.

To examine the impact, Barber and her student Soohyoung Rain Lee randomly separated 115 adults aged 41-67 into two groups that both were asked to read fake news articles. The "negative stereotype threat" group received an article confirming stereotypes about older adults and hearing loss. The "positive no-threat" group was told that it is actually younger adults who have greater hearing problems, thanks to heavy ear bud use. All participants were then asked to fill out a questionnaire evaluating their own hearing ability.

Among participants in their 40s and early 50s, there was no difference between the two groups. But for those in their 50s and 60s, which article they read mattered. Older adults in the negative stereotype threat group who had read about age-related hearing decline rated their own hearing abilities worse than their peers in the positive no-threat group who read about younger adults' hearing.

"It’s not surprising that stereotypes about old age did not impact the participants in their 40s or early 50s," Barber said. "Stereotype threat only occurs when the stereotype applies specifically to you."

As the Baby Boomer generation ages, health care providers and caretakers need to be careful to make sure older adults feel as comfortable as possible when undergoing assessments to ensure their abilities are accurately measured, Barber said.

"It's not that all of older adults' problems are due to stereotype threat, but there are problems that stereotype threat may make even worse," she said. "You're taking people who have already shown some decline in their hearing or their memory abilities and stereotype threat is pushing their performance down even further from where it actually should be."

The results also have implications for anyone who interacts with older adults on a regular basis, Barber added.

"When people speak louder or with short sentences just because someone looks like they're an older adult, that’s not actually doing the older adult any favors, especially if he or she is not having any difficulty in those areas. Treating someone differently simply because of their age may lead them to experience stereotype threat and underperform compared to their potential," she said.

"Stereotype threat lowers older adults' self-reported hearing abilities," by Sarah J. Barber and Soohyoung Rain Lee, was published online Oct. 14 in Gerontology.