While stereotype threat has been shown to have deleterious effects on older adults’ cognitive performance, studies demonstrating effects on physical function and subjective age are scarce. Moreover, while negative self-perceptions of aging may also have detrimental effects on older adults’ mental and physical health over time, they have been rarely considered as a moderator of stereotype threat effects. Therefore, the first aim of the present thesis was to examine stereotype threat effects on memory, physical performance, and subjective age. In addition, we investigated the assumption that older people would be particularly vulnerable to stereotype threat when they had more negative self-perceptions of aging while more positive self-perceptions could have reduced stereotype threat effects. Then, considering the negative consequences of ageism on older adults, the second aim of this thesis was to investigate attitudes toward them among their social partners. In particular, by examining whether there were differences in attitudes toward older people among people living in different countries, we aimed to better understand how attitudes vary in different socio-economic and cultural contexts.
Regarding the first aim of the thesis, we first present a review in French that focuses on the effects of age stereotypes on cognitive performances. Then, in Study 1, we present the validation of the French version of the Attitude to Ageing Questionnaire that we used as an indicator of self-perceptions of aging in the two subsequent studies. In Study 2, we examined the effects of stereotype threat and self-perceptions of aging on older adults’ memory and subjective age, and we considered perceived threat as a mediator. Contrary to our expectation, positive age stereotypes and self-perceptions of aging did not reduce the effects of stereotype threat on memory, subjective age or perceived threat in the high-threat condition in comparison to the low-threat condition. We only found an effect in the high-threat group: the more positive age stereotypes held by older people, the more they perceived threat, which in turn decreased their memory performance and made them feel mentally older. We hypothesized that age-group identity is stronger in people with more positive age stereotypes, which lead them to perceive more threat. In line with this study, in Study 3, we investigated the effects of stereotype threat on physical performance and subjective age. While stereotype threat effects on physical performance were not consistent across the different tasks, older people in the stereotype threat condition felt physically older than people in the control condition, and these effects were more pronounced among participants with more negative self-perceptions. Effects of threat on mental subjective age were also present, but they were not as strong.
Then, in Studies 4 and 5, we examined attitudes toward older people among people living in different countries. In Study 4, we examined attitudes toward older people among psychology students in Belgium and Quebec. Indeed, even if these populations share relatively similar culture and economic development, older people’s participation in paid and volunteer work is higher in Quebec than in Belgium, which is related to more positive attitudes toward them. Accordingly, the findings showed that students in Belgium are overall more negative toward older people. In Study 5, in order to more deeply examine how attitudes vary in different socio-economic and cultural contexts, we compared attitudes among people living in Burundi and in Belgium. As hypothesized, we found that the lack of government spending on older people (pension and healthcare systems) in Burundi contribute to their younger counterparts perceiving them more negatively than in Belgium, despite stronger cultural traditions of familial solidarity in Burundi.
Studies conducted among older people extended previous research by simultaneously examining the effects of stereotype threat and self-perceptions of aging on older adults’ memory, physical performance, and subjective age. Across the studies, effects of threat on subjective age are particularly worrying. Indeed, even in the absence of direct and/ or consistent effects on tasks (i.e., physical tasks), repeated exposure to age stereotypes (regarding one’s cognitive or physical aging), by making older people feel closer to their chronological age and even older, could have a detrimental effect on cognitive and physical functioning over time, even if there is no direct effect. Regarding studies that aimed to compare attitudes toward older people in different countries, they extend previous research by showing that attitudes toward older people are overall rather negative. They also emphasize the importance of socio-economic conditions in order to understand why attitudes toward older people may differ across countries. Taking into account the effects of stereotypes on older adults’ health and on the attitudes of their social partners toward them, it is important to produce solutions that can improve attitudes toward older people.