The study, scheduled to be published in the journal Psychological Science, was an extension of the idea of "stereotype threat" -- that when people are confronted with negative stereotypes about a group with which they identify, they tend to self-handicap and under-perform compared with their potential. In doing so, they inadvertently confirm the negative stereotypes they were worried about in the first place.
Sarah Barber of the University of Southern California and colleagues primed some seniors with reminders of aging stereotypes, then gave them a memory test and paid them based on test performance.
For participants who had something to gain, being confronted with age stereotypes resulted in participants scores about 20 percent worse than people who were not exposed to the stereotype.
But when the test was framed in terms of preventing losses due to forgetting, the results flipped: Participants reminded of the stereotypes about aging and memory loss actually scored better than those who were under no stereotype threat.
"Stereotype threat is generally thought to be a bad thing, and it is well established that it can impair older adults' memory performance," Barber said. "However, our experiments demonstrate that stereotype threat can actually enhance older adults' memory if the task involves avoiding losses."
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