26 April 2000

Older People Are More Prejudiced - And They Can't Help It

by Kate Melville

Researchers at Ohio State University have found one explanation for why older adults tend to be more prejudiced than young people: they just can't help it.

A new study suggests that as older adults lose their inhibitory ability - the capacity to suppress unwanted or irrelevant information - they find it difficult to disregard their own stereotypical or prejudicial thoughts.

The result is that older adults are more likely to think and express prejudicial thoughts, even when they want to be non-prejudiced and are reminded to ignore stereotypes.

"We know older adults grew up in more prejudiced times, so many people have just assumed that they didn't change with the times. But our results suggest that many older people want to change, they want to be more tolerant, but they have lost a cognitive ability that would help them be more tolerant," said William von Hippel, co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

Von Hippel conducted the study, which appears in the May issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, with Lisa Silver of Ohio State and Molly Lynch of the University of Texas, San Antonio.

Other researchers have examined the loss of inhibitory abilities in older people, but have not connected that loss to prejudice, von Hippel said. "Inhibition is very important; it allows us to pay attention. For example, when you're reading the paper and the radio's on, you're inhibiting the radio to read the paper. Several researchers have shown this is one of the abilities that elderly people lose."

In the experiment by von Hippel and his colleagues, 36 young adults (aged 18 to 25) and 35 older adults (age 65 to 95) read a description of either a student athlete named Jamal or an honors student named John. Half of each age group read about Jamal and the other half read about John. The manipulation of the names was intended to convey (without explicitly saying) that the student-athlete (Jamal) was an African American and the honors student (John) was white.

Study participants were then presented with a series of responses that Jamal or John had supposedly provided to questions concerning personal interests, family life and related issues. These responses were identical for both John and Jamal.

Participants then rated their student on a variety of measures, such as friendliness and extroversion. The key item for the research, though, was that participants rated the student's intelligence on a scale of 1 to 10.

Prior to their ratings, participants were told to form their opinion of the student based entirely on his answers to the various questions, and not on the background information. In other words, they were told to ignore the information which provided clues as to whether the student was white or African American. Participants had to rely on the answers to the questions, which were the same whether they read about Jamal or John.

Despite these instructions, older people in the sample rated the African American student as relatively less intelligent than did the young adults. Older adults also rated the white student as more intelligent than did younger people.

The question the researchers faced was why older people showed more evidence of stereotypical thinking. All white Americans are aware of negative stereotypes, such as that Blacks are not as intelligent as whites, von Hippel said. Researchers believe that because our culture is suffused with these stereotypes, we learn them at a very young age, and they automatically come to mind when one comes into contact with Blacks. However, non-prejudiced people are able to reject and inhibit these thoughts and replace them with more egalitarian beliefs. The evidence suggests older adults can't do that inhibiting as well.

Before the participants read about Jamal or John, they took a test developed in 1991 to measure inhibitory ability. In this test, participants read a series of paragraphs, some of which contain distracting text presented in a different font from the rest of the paragraph. The participants have to read the paragraphs out loud as quickly and accurately as possible, without reading the distracting text. These paragraphs are difficult to read quickly because people have to inhibit thoughts of the distracting text while they read, von Hippel said.

This study showed, as expected, that the older adults were slowed down more by the distracting text than younger people, indicating that they had poorer inhibition.

The key to this study, von Hippel said, was that when the researchers took the older adults' poorer inhibition into account, there was no significant difference in how older and younger people rated the two students' intelligence.

"The reason older adults thought Jamal was less intelligent was because they were unable to inhibit their stereotypical thoughts that African Americans are less intelligent," von Hippel said.

Along with this task to measure stereotyping, participants also completed two tests designed to measure prejudice. One measured "modern" racism toward African Americans that is expressed in terms of resentment toward unfair advantages that Blacks supposedly get in our society. Another test measured a more old-fashioned, blatant racism in which people express the desire to stay away from minority groups.

The results showed that older people were more likely than younger people to show the more modern form of prejudice - but, again, this difference nearly disappeared once differences in inhibitory ability were taken into account.

Older adults also showed higher levels of the old-fashioned prejudice than younger people, but most of this difference remained even after inhibitory ability was taken into account. "This old-fashioned prejudice is probably where growing up in more prejudiced times becomes important," von Hippel said.

Other tests the participants took as part of the experiment showed that older adults showed a strong desire not to be prejudiced and that they did care about the kind of impression other people had of them. "This shows that older people weren't just expressing more prejudice because they didn't care what people thought of them, or because they didn't care to control their prejudices."

Von Hippel emphasized that while adults tend to lose some of their inhibitory ability as they age, this ability is not just a function of age - there are individual differences across all age levels. For example, the researchers did a separate analysis of just the younger people in the study and found that those who showed poorer inhibitory ability were more likely to be prejudiced than those who had better inhibitory ability.

"This suggests that inhibition doesn't just matter for older people, it matters for all of us," he said. "There are a lot of other things that can disrupt inhibition, such as alcohol and exhaustion, that could lead any of us to show more evidence of prejudice."

While the results show older people do have more trouble than others in controlling stereotypical and prejudicial thoughts, von Hippel emphasized that doesn't mean they should not be held accountable for their words and actions.

"We should be more understanding, because it is harder for older people to be non-prejudiced. But that doesn't let them off the hook. By no means are we saying that they have to act in a discriminatory manner or that they have absolutely no control over what they say or do."