Can Stereotypes About Your Age-Related Abilities Impact Your Cognitive Performance?
The Influence of Stereotype Threat on First Year College Students and the Elderly

Ian Gackowski
Christine Merola
Julie E. Yonker
Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI


Stereotype threat is activated in contexts where individuals who are members of negatively stereotyped groups are conscious of the content of those stereotypes, and consequently their performance may be negatively affected (e.g., Croizet & Claire, 1998; Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999; Chasteen & Bhattacharyya, 2005). However, encouragement has been shown to combat the effects of stereotype threat (Hess, Auman, Colcombe, & Rahhal, 2003; Good, 2003). This study investigated whether an implicit age related negative perception (stereotype threat) or implicit encouragement would impact cognitive task performance of both first year college students and older adults. First year college students did not demonstrate cognitive performance effects for either stereotype threat or encouragement, however, older adults responded with better performance on a mental rotation task with encouragement. 

Key Words: Encouragement, Stereotype Threat, Memory, Problem Solving, Explicit


The concept of stereotype threat was first defined by the classic social psychology experiment of Steele and Aronson (1995) regarding differences in racial group performance as a result of social influence. Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one's group. Research has shown stereotype threat to be generally and widely applicable across a wide variety of conditions including individuals from lower socioeconomic status groups (Croizet & Claire, 1998), women compared to men (Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999; Brown & Josephs, 1999), older adults compared to young adults (Chasteen & Bhattacharyya, 2005; Hess, Colcombe, Rahhal, 2003), and African American college students (Steel & Aronson, 1995).

The methodology for most of these tests involves covert activation, as individuals are presented with tasks and not informed concerning the stereotype to which they are conforming. For example, in Steele and Aronson’s classic study (1995), African American and white students were presented with a test and informed it was simply for diagnostic purposes. However, the race effects and lower performance among African American students still emerged as students internally brought up this stereotype and performed less well, in comparison to a control group who were told the test was non-diagnostic. Another study simply involved having a minority of women take a math test alongside a majority group of men; the researchers kept silent regarding the mathematical abilities of women versus men, but the women inferred the stereotype from the situation and consequently their math scores dropped (Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000).

There are certain conditions that must be met in order for stereotype threat to occur. There must be group identity salience. One’s stereotyped group status must be made relevant or conspicuous by situational features, and an individual must identify themselves within this stereotyped group. Studies have also shown that one must strongly identify with the group being negatively stereotyped in order to experience threat (Levy, 1996; Smith, 2004; Lachman & Andreoletti, 2004; Elizaga & Markman, 2008). Stereotypes can be invoked, either blatantly or subtly, in the performance environment; although research (Levy, 1996; Hess, Hinson, & Statham, 2004) has shown that implicit stereotyping, the activation of stereotypes without one’s awareness, is more effective. Typically, the more widely a negative stereotype is known, the more devaluing it is for the individual (Barnard, Burley, Olivarez, & Crooks, 2008). Situations in which an individual believes that his or her ability in a stereotypic domain will be evaluated are also likely to activate stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat has a wide range of effects, but the specific mechanisms involved are difficult to isolate. Negative cognitions and dejection are common effects of stereotype producing anxiety and motivation loss with these resultant negative cognitions and emotions diminishing the cognitive resources available for maximal performance (Keller & Dauenheimer, 2003). The perceived stigma has been explained as producing additional cognitive workload that is rooted in the fear that a testing situation will confirm a negative stereotype (Croizet, Despres, Gauzins, Huguet, Leyens, & Meot, 2004). This extra mental pressure or cognitive load can interfere with performance, producing a self-fulfilling prophecy for the individual. Stereotype threat might also result in lowered performance expectations; if individuals expect to do poorly on a task, they may not be able to perform as well as when confidence is higher (Stangor, Carr, and Kiang, 1998). Reduced working memory capacity is also likely to be a crucial mechanism (Kit, Tuokko, & Mateer, 2008).

Although stereotype threat has been shown to negatively impact cognitive performance in a variety of situations, other studies have been conducted regarding prevention of stereotype threat, including the effects of encouragement. Levy (1996) suggested that to counteract the stereotype threat effect, interventions can target one of two levels—lessening the number of negative stereotypes prevalent in today’s society, or attempting to modify the negative psychological state that stereotype activation elicits. Many of these interventions focus on restoration of ones’ sense of self-worth, through techniques such as providing positive role models, educating individuals about the stereotype threat phenomenon, and reinforcing the idea that individuals can rise above negative group stereotypes (Levy, 1996).

The present study was designed to examine the impact of an age-related stereotype threat as well as an encouragement condition on first year college students and older adults—two age groups who often encounter age-related stereotypes. Past studies have been undertaken to identify mechanisms that might result in age-related variations in performance (Lachman & Andreoletti, 2004; Levy, 1996). Lachman and Andreoletti (2004) found that education level also greatly affected one’s susceptibility to stereotype threat, as those with more education respond positively in order to counter stereotype information and are resilient when faced with negative age stereotypes about memory. The majority of research within the field of stereotype threat has involved either the use of negative or positive stereotypes but rarely both within the same study (Levy, 1996; Hess, Hinson, & Statham, 2004, Schmader, & Johns, 2003). The current study, however, aimed to illustrate the differences in cognitive and memory function between a control, a stereotype threat, and an encouragement group through priming via the consent form.

We hypothesized that both first year students and older adults would be negatively affected by the stereotype threat condition. First year students would feel threatened that they are not well prepared for the rigors of collegiate academia, and older adults would feel threatened by a reminder of the inevitable decline of their memory abilities. We also hypothesized that the encouragement condition would be advantageous to both age groups in their cognitive task performance as compared to a control group. We intended to replicate the positive results involving encouragement in combating stereotype threat in the elderly (Hess, et al., 2003) as well as determine if we could expand this encouragement beyond seventh graders (Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003) and also to first semester college students, who are going through a particularly anxiety-provoking period of transition. 



First year student participants were enrolled in Introductory Psychology courses. Students received class credit for participation. Seventy-two participants were tested, 47 females and 25 males. The age of all participants was between 18 and 19. The older adult participants were members of a community education program offered at a local college. No compensation was given. Twenty-seven males and 29 females between the ages of 62 to 85 years participated in the study.


A battery of cognitive tests was administered to participants. The Digit Symbol substitution task (Wechsler, 1997) involved translating a series of numbers into corresponding symbols. The Digit Symbol task measured executive function. The dependent measure was the number of correct digit/symbol substitutions. The facial recognition task involved viewing thirty faces of Caucasian men and women presented one-by-one, followed by a second slideshow of sixty faces of Caucasian men and women—half of whom were shown previously and half were distracters. The participants indicated “yes” if they had seen the face previously or “no” they had not seen the face previously. The dependent measure was a calculated statistic, d’ (standardized values of hits [correct matches] minus standardized values of false alarms [incorrect responses]). The facial recognition task was a measure of episodic memory. The mental rotation task (Shepard & Metzler, 1971) was a test of spatial perception, in which participants had to identify two rotated figures that matched the target figure. The dependent measure was number of correct responses. Finally, the verbal fluency task involved listing as many words as possible in one minute that start with a particular letter (A, S).  The dependent measure was the total number of words that began with each letter.

The stereotype threat or encouragement or control conditions were manifested in the three different consent forms for use with each different group in this experiment. The consent scripts for the first year students focused on first year college student concerns. The stereotype threat consent form emphasized negative, threat-salient words for the stereotype threat consent form (rigorous, performance, under) with one of the study purposes explicitly stating “first year students should expect to score poorly on these tests.” The encouragement consent was developed by emphasizing positive, encouraging words throughout the consent form (better, succeed, beneficial) with one of the study purposes explicitly stated as “By participating in this study, you are agreeing to help determine the cognitive benefits of attending college on memory and problem solving ability.” The consent form for the control condition maintained a neutral, value-free tone with the expressed purpose of the study as “By participating in this study, you are agreeing to help me complete my course requirements in which I must learn how to administer a variety of memory and problem solving tasks to a group of people.” The consent scripts for the older adults focused on issues associated with older adult concerns.  The stereotype threat consent form used negative, threat-salient words (inevitable decline, poorly) with a study purpose stated as “This research will help us understand on which problem solving and memory tasks elderly people perform poorly as compared to younger people.” The encouragement consent emphasized positive encouraging words (benefit, promote, better) with the study purpose explicitly stated as “By participating in this study, you are agreeing to help determine the cognitive benefits of attending lectures in order to promote lifelong learning.”  The control condition consent form was similar to that used with the first year students in that the study purpose was described as “By participating in this study, you are agreeing to help me complete my course requirements in which I must learn how to administer a variety of memory and problem solving tasks to a group of people” and used neutral, value-free words.


First year students participants were randomly assigned to the stereotype threat group (N=25), encouragement group (N=25), and control group (N=20). The fifty-six older adults participants were randomly assigned into three different groups: stereotype threat group (N=14 ,M age=74.9, SD=6.4), encouragement group (N=20, M age=72.9, SD=5.7), and control group (N=13, M age=71.2, SD= 4.5). These older adults were highly educated with the mean years of education being 16.5 years. The following procedure was the same for both the first year students and older adults. Each participant was distributed one of three types of consent forms: a stereotype threat, an encouragement, and a control. The task administrator read the consent form aloud as the participant followed along. After signing the consent forms, participants received the cognitive task worksheet and were told to follow verbal instructions from the task administrator for each task.


Cognitive task performance means were calculated for each task by each condition and for each age group (Table 1). T-tests indicated that first year students performed significantly better than older adults, p<.05, on all tasks except facial recognition. We evaluated the influence of each condition on cognitive task performance with a 3 (condition) x 4 (cognitive task) MANOVA. Due to cognitive performance differences between college first year students and older adults, the MANOVA was run separately for each age group. We did not find any significant overall effect of condition on cognitive performance for the first year students—F(8, 130) = .39, p<.95; however, we did find a significant effect of condition on cognitive performance for older adults—F(8, 100) = 2.27, p<.03. Upon closer examination of the condition category by cognitive task, we found tendencies toward significance for digit symbol substitution—F(2, 53) = .187, p<.17, mental rotation—F(2, 53) = 2.17, p<.12, and verbal fluency—F(2, 53) = 1.8, p<.18.  Sidak post hoc analysis indicated a tendency for those in the beneficial group to perform better on mental rotation compared to control, p<.14. All other post hoc analyses were not significant.

Table 1 Cognitive Task Performance Means by Condition and Age Group

                                              Stereotype Threat                  Encouragement                  Control

Digit Symbol Substitution

            First Year Students     68.5 + 10.7**                      67.5 + 10.7**                  68.1 + 9.7**

            Older Adults               44.8 + 10.4                          50.6  + 11.5                     45.6  + 8.2

Mental Rotation

            First Year Students     9.2  + 6.3**                         8.0  + 8.0**                     8.4  + 5.6**

            Older Adults               0.1  + 5.3                             1.9  + 4.2                         -0.9 +  3.0

Facial Recognition

            First Year Students     0.4 + 1.6                               -0.2  + 1.4                       0.4  + 1.3

            Older Adults               -0.1 +  0.9                              0.1  + 1.3                     -0.02 +  0.9

Verbal Fluency

            First Year Students     30.8 +  6.0*                           30.9 +  6.3**                 31.9  + 6.6*

            Older Adults               25.2  + 7.6                             22.8  + 5.7                     26.8  + 6.4
*p<.05, **p<.001

Because age and education have been shown to have an influence of cognitive task performance in older adults (Yonker, Eriksson, Nilsson, & Herlitz, 2003), we controlled for these variables by entering them as covariates into a 3 (condition) x 4 (cognitive task) MANCOVA.  The significant effect for condition remained after controlling for these variables—F(8, 78) = 2.14, p<.04, as did the tendency toward significance for the digit symbol substitution—F(2, 42) = 1.9, p<.16, yet post hoc analyses revealed no significant pairwise comparisons.


No effect of stereotype threat or encouragement was found in the cognitive task performance of the first year students. We found an influence of testing condition on older adults’ cognitive task performance that indicated the condition of encouragement had a positive impact on older adults’ performance on the mental rotation task. Our results suggested that first year students were neither harmed nor benefited in their cognitive task performance by stereotype threat or encouragement, respectively. Whereas older adults tend to do better on a mental rotation task if they have received encouragement prior to the testing session.

Although the older adults in this study had four more years of education on average than the first year college students, the older adults were not able to perform at a higher level on the cognitive tasks than the first year students. These results are most likely due to the effects of aging on cognitive performance (Yonker, Eriksson, Nilsson, & Herlitz, 2003). However, the older, more educated adults were better able to take advantage of the encouragement condition and performed better on most cognitive tasks especially mental rotation. This result supported previous research that has shown that educational level may have a positive impact for older adults such that they are positively able to counter stereotype threat (Lachman & Andreoletti, 2004), and encouragement has been shown to combat the effects of stereotype threat (Hess, Auman, Colcombe, & Rahhal, 2003; Good, 2003). From a developmental standpoint, it is also possible that older adults are more able to focus on encouragement, rather than negative stereotypes because older adults feel fewer negative emotions and experience more positive affect (Mather & Carstensen, 2005).

Stereotype threat has been proven in numerous studies, yet our findings run contrary to this research (Steele & Aronson, 1995; Croizet & Claire, 1998; Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999; Chasteen & Bhattacharyya, 2005). A possible explanation for these results is that either we did not succeed in finding a stereotype that effectively threatened and applied to the individuals we were testing (first year students or older adults), or else the participants were not adequately invested in the tasks to feel threatened. The lack of investment in the study could be a valid explanation for the first year students, as they were simply fulfilling a course requirement. On the other hand, the elderly participants volunteered to participate, and an effect of encouragement was found. 

Although we did not succeed in supporting our hypothesis that age-related stereotype threat would negatively impact cognitive task performance, there were some methodological issues that could result in improved research design. Our method of imposing stereotype was explicit, mentioning stereotypes or encouragements in the consent form rather than implicit. Past research (Levy, 1996; Hess, Hinson, & Statham, 2004) has shown that implicit stereotyping, the activation of stereotypes without one’s awareness, is more effective. Perhaps if we had used implicit rather than explicit stereotyping a different result would have manifested. We also could have used more overt methods of threat, perhaps by having a majority of upperclassmen confederates complete the tasks concurrently with the first year students or frail elderly concurrently with the older adults in our study. This could be particularly effective if the first year students or more able bodied older adults were in the minority in the testing condition, because minority status has been shown to be a predictor of stereotype threat (Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000).

In conclusion, this study demonstrated differences in how younger and older adults respond to age-related stereotype threat or encouragement. First year college students were neither negatively impacted in their cognitive task performance by stereotypes that they were underprepared for the rigors of academia nor were they benefited by encouragement that college was a positive learning experience. These results could be due to the required element of their study participation, or their enrollment at a private liberal arts college engendered them with confidence to overcome stereotypes. Likewise, older adults were not threatened by a negative age-related stereotype, nor age-related cognitive decline; on the other hand they were positively impacted by encouragement. These results could be due to the higher educational level of these older adults as well as their developmental age-related tendencies toward positive affect that could assist in overcoming stereotypes and reliance on encouragement in support of cognitive performance. These results have implications that encouraging older adults, as they strive in their attempt of new tasks, may result in better performance on these tasks.



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