Subliminal messages containing positive stereotypes about aging can improve older adults’ physical functioning for several weeks, according to a new study.
Researchers used a new intervention method to examine for the first time whether exposure to positive age stereotypes could weaken negative age stereotypes and their effects over time, and lead to healthier outcomes.
The study, published online in Psychological Science, consisted of 100 older individuals (average age 81 years) who live in the greater New Haven, Connecticut area.
Some of the participants were subjected to positive age stereotypes on a computer screen that flashed words such as “spry” and “creative” at speeds that were too fast to allow for conscious awareness.
Individuals exposed to the positive messaging exhibited a range of psychological and physical improvements that were not found in control subjects. They benefited from improved physical function, such as physical balance, which continued for three weeks after the intervention ended.
Also, during the same period, positive age stereotypes and positive self-perceptions of aging got stronger, and negative age stereotypes and negative self-perceptions of aging weakened.
Fighting bad stereotypes
“The challenge we had in this study was to enable the participants to overcome the negative age stereotypes which they acquire from society, as in everyday conversations and television comedies,” says lead researcher Becca Levy, associate professor and director of the Social and Behavioral Science Division of the Yale School of Public Health.
“The study’s successful outcome suggests the potential of directing subliminal processes toward the enhancement of physical function.”
While it has been previously shown by Levy that negative age stereotypes can weaken an older individual’s physical functioning, this is the first time that subliminal activation of positive age stereotypes was found to improve outcomes over time.
The study found that the intervention influenced physical function through a cascade of positive effects: It first strengthened the subjects’ positive age stereotypes, which then strengthened their positive self-perceptions, which then improved their physical function.
The study’s effect on physical function surpassed a previous study by others that involved a six-month-exercise intervention’s effect with participants of similar ages.
The National Institute on Aging; National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; and the Patrick and Catherine Weldon Donaghue Medical Research Foundation supported the study. The research team also included Corey Pliver of the Yale School of Public Health, Martin Slade of the Yale School of Medicine, and Pil Chung of the University of California, Berkeley.