Old people are less relevant, and have less value – self fulfilling prophecy?

“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.” (Rosenthal  1985)

In 1968 Dr. Robert Rosenthal conducted an experiment. The teachers in a single California elementary school were told that some of their students could be expected to be “intellectual bloomers,” doing better than expected in comparison to their classmates.

  • The “intellectual bloomers” names were made known to the teachers, and the teachers were not told that these children were actually no more talented or smarter than other kids, scoring average and below average IQ scores.
  • At the end of the study, all students were again tested with the same IQ test used at the beginning of the study. All six grades in both experimental and control groups showed a  gain in IQ from before the test to after the test.
  • However, First and Second Graders showed statistically significant gains favoring the experimental group of “intellectual bloomers.” This led to the conclusion that teacher expectations, particularly for the youngest children, can influence student achievement.
  • Rosenthal concluded that even attitude or mood could positively affect the students when the teacher was made aware of the children they thought to be  “intellectual bloomers.” The teacher may pay closer attention to and even treat the child differently in times of difficulty.
  • This study has been utilized over the past 50 years, in different situations, and is called a self-fulfilling prophecy or Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect.
  • If a group or a person has a particular expectation of a certain behavior of another group or a person, the expected behavior is likely to occur.

When it comes to aging, our whole culture is saturated with the expectation that there are certain stereotypes of how older people should act including elder adults themselves.

“What if everything we have learned about aging is wrong?”  Dr. Bill Thomas,

  • Society expects and believes that elderhood and aging are bad, sad, and depressing – and so, as we age we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur!
  • A study published in the journal Experimental Aging Research suggests that just reminding elders of the fact that older people have bad memories, for example, may be enough to negatively affect their recall ability.
  • Not surprising given that this effect can be found in any subgroup or individual. Tell someone they are dumb long enough and they will believe it and act accordingly.

Self-perceptions and society perceptions of aging tend to influence thoughts and behaviors without people being consciously aware that this is happening.  Changing perceptions of aging is challenging because it involves both individual perceptions of aging and wide-spread societal negative stereotypes that are plastered on social media, news, and in advertising.

Changing aging can begin with you and me.  After all, whatever your age, if you are not an elder now,  you are an elder-in-waiting!

“What you think, you become,” Buddha taught. You’ve heard high-minded quotes like these all your life. Now science has caught up. We can finally quantify and track how beliefs and expectations can shape outcomes.

Older adults who associate aging with ongoing growth and the pursuit of meaningful activities are more likely to view experiences – both enjoyable and challenging in adaptive ways.   We need to push back on the societal stereotypes.  And the data proves that we must, indeed change the current paradigm of aging now to preserve our own true identities as we age.

  • Longevity: A 23-year study,  of older adults who reported more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those who bought into society’s negative stereotype of aging.
  •  Illness: In a study of 1,286 people who believed that aging is a time of continued learning and development reported fewer illnesses six years later.  In contrast, those who believed that aging is a time of physical loss had increased physical illness over the same time period.
  • Brain Health: Compared to people with more positive views of aging, those who endorsed more negative age stereotypes displayed greater signs of risk factors for Alzheimer’s Disease. It was discovered that the hippocampus, an area of the brain related to memory, decreased in size at a faster rate in those who embraced negative age stereotypes. (Moser, Spagnoli, & Santos-Eggimann, 2011)

So, when you look in the mirror, see the truth about yourself.  We are all aging, and society may say you are ‘over the hill,” worn out, of no value, unattractive, and worse. Do you believe that?  Or are you ready to disrupt that idea?

Look at your future elder self in a mirror.  What do you see?  It is proven that “As we think we shall become.”

  • Look at your future elder self: Do you see yourself as a full, capable, beautiful human being, with a vibrant curious spirit even if you have lost your hair, your mobility,  your vision, or your mind?
  • Look at your future elder self: Do you see yourself growing, learning, giving, playing, and living?
  • Look at your future elder self:  Are you able to embrace your life, and recognize that you have much to give and share – right up until that very last breath when you transition to your next great adventure?

Join the movement to change society’s stereotype of aging. Do not let the expectations of society about aging become a self-fulfilling prophecy for you.   You have an opportunity now to change your future experience beyond adulthood, embracing your journey into your own elderhood.


About the Author: Jean Garboden is the Director of Education and Innovation at Compass Senior Living, located in Eugene Oregon. Jean is an Elder Advocate and Eden Alternative Educator with over 30 years’ experience in not-for-profit and for-profit health care organizations. She is honored to lead the mission and values culture development for Compass Senior Living. Jean lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where she enjoys the weather and volunteers with the Nevadans for the Common Good, advocating for caregivers and elders in southern Nevada.