Public Release: 

Children's stereotypes of aging starts early

University of Alberta

Children as young as five years old have negative stereotypes of older people, according to new research from the University of Alberta. Dr. Sheree Kwong See, a researcher from the Department of Psychology, recently conducted a study addressing when age stereotypes develop and found that they have an early start.

Kwong See used a simple behavioral task, using two experimenters: a younger woman in her 20s and an older woman in her 70s. The experiment meant five-year-olds were asked if two aligned rows of objects have the same number or if one has more. After the child agrees that the lines are the same the experimenter transforms one of the lines so that is longer and the child is asked the same question again.

When the younger experimenter asked the second question--when the line was lengthened but the numbers were the same--a high percentage of children changed the responses, suggesting the children reason that the young woman is in the know and is searching for a different answer. When asked by the older experimenter, the children reason that she is duped by the transformation and is legitimately asking if the lines still have the same number.

"To enlighten the older experimenter, children themselves then focus their answers on number," said Kwong See, who heard further anecdotal evidence from the children who said an older person might be confused. "They think, 'this older person is incompetent and needs me to explain things.' But when the younger one asks the question, the child thinks 'she knows what she is talking about so I'll try to give her a different answer the second time around.'"

This new technique used an indirect way to see how children treat people of different ages and Kwong See found a significant difference in the way they interacted with the young and old. "This task is a behavior measure which tells us something the children are inferring. And we found that at age five, there already is a stereotype."

Kwong See has already shown that older people buy into stereotypes and end up believing they cannot do something as well as a younger person just because they've heard it so often. Fostering a more realistic and balanced view of aging is evidently more crucial at a young age, says Kwong See, to break down the negative and often incorrect beliefs about the elderly.

This research has been presented at the Gerontological Society of America conference.

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The U of A in Edmonton, Alberta is one of Canada's premier teaching and research universities serving more than 33,000 students with 6,000 faculty and staff. It continues to lead the country with the most 3M Teaching Fellows, Canada's only national award recognizing teaching excellence.

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