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Can we be ageist toward ourselves?

Last updated on March 16, 2022

In Dynamics of Individual Differences course, students acquire in-depth knowledge on how and why personality traits and cognitive abilities change across life and how they interact with each other at different stages in life. Students learn different concepts of change and stability, and how to interpret empirical findings on change. In addition, students learn about the relevance of personality traits and cognitive abilities for various relevant outcomes at different stages in life (e.g., health, job success) and how interventions can improve these outcomes by targeting the psychological constructs. Finally, students learn about the relevance of (changing) personality traits and cognitive abilities for work outcomes. 

The assignment was to write a short text for the ReMa-IDA Blog "Character Studies". The students chose one of the session (sub-)topics, but were also encouraged to choose a subject on their own.

Do you increasingly face or hear about ageism toward older individuals across domains of life, ranging from social to work settings or from media to institutions? Especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, more people came to realize and acknowledge ageism due to the disproportionately negative impact the pandemic had on older persons. This problem was formally acknowledged by the declaration of United Nations (UN) Decade of Healthy Ageing (2021-2030) on 14 December 2020 (WHO, 2020), which is an initiative that calls for a global collaborative action toward tackling the issues of ageism. This is a valuable step because negative attitudes toward ageing and subsequent enactment of ageism in macro-level contexts, such as governments and institutions, has major consequences for people’s health (e.g., poorer physical and mental health), well-being (e.g., reduced quality of life and increased social isolation and loneliness) and human rights (e.g., right to equal treatment). As crucial as is taking intentional steps toward combating ageism at the macro-level, there is a neglected aspect of ageism that folks may not hear as much, and that is self-directed ageism. In other words, the negative attitudes and subsequent behaviors we have toward our own selves due to our age. I bet you heard or said at least something like “I’m too old for this!” and wanted to, or actually did stop whatever it was. Next time, you may want to reconsider relying on such feelings. 

So why is it important to talk about self-directed ageism? Although self-directed ageism may be less visible in our daily lives and receive less scholarly investigation, it actually is an integral part of the definition of ageism. In the Global Report on Ageism (World Health Organization [WHO], 2021, p.2) from March, 2021 by UN and WHO, ageism was defined as: “the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) directed toward people on the basis of their age. It can be institutional, interpersonal or self-directed”. It becomes apparent from the definition that ageism is multifaceted and can emerge in different contexts not only at the macro-, but also at the micro-level that pertains to us and our personal lives. 

 In fact, previous research shows that holding better attitudes toward ageing, as opposed to negative attitudes, relates to positive outcomes such as better health, affect and cognitive functioning as people age. In an increasingly ageing world, it is nothing but imperative to talk about and combat ageism, and do so by seeing the whole picture. Leaving out aspects of ageism such as self-directed ageism would help us view only a part of the whole situation and what could be done to improve it. The better we understand why we may be feeling or acting in a certain way, the more likely it gets to alter our views to better embrace ourselves and others. 

Who is more likely to engage in self-directed ageism? 

Attitudes are closely linked to stereotypes and actions, and negative attitudes characterize the views on ageing due to the saliency of losses associated with age, such as physical or social loss. In this regard, looking into the differences in attitudes to ageing would be highly relevant when understanding what may constitute self-directed ageism. Then let’s zoom in on individual differences in how attitudes are developed toward own ageing, which make us prone to engage in self-directed ageism. 

In a longitudinal study that spanned over 10 years, Bryant et al. (2016) investigated how the Big Five personality traits in the start of the study predicted different aspects of attitudes toward aging in a 10-year follow up using a sample of individuals in their late-lives with ages above 60 from Australia. Personality traits were chosen as predictors of attitudes as they are commonly believed to be relatively stable patterns of thoughts, feelings and actions. The first aspect of attitudes toward own aging was the attitude toward psychological growth. The findings suggested that those individuals with higher neuroticism in the beginning of the study had less positive, while individuals with higher extraversion had more positive, attitudes toward having gains in old age in relation to the self and others, such as gaining wisdom. In line with the explanation of the authors, these findings make intuitive sense in that higher neuroticism levels make us prone to have more negative feelings in general. Although no explanation was given by the authors about extraversion, it is possible that being more extraverted and, consequently, being more actively involved in social environments can give individuals the chance to continue growing out of experience and make use of the experiences they had gained throughout their lives. This way, one can maintain a more positive attitude by valuing the present moment as well as past experiences. 

The second aspect of attitude was psychosocial loss, which relates to the attitudes toward having reduced participation in society and loneliness. It was shown that, higher extraversion and agreeableness levels predicted more positive attitudes toward psychosocial loss. Meaning that individuals did not solely believe that old age was characterized by such losses, as opposed to the stereotypical belief of the general population. The findings do not come as a surprise because higher involvement in social life represent the opposite of psychosocial loss and agreeable individuals can better adapt to and maintain social relationships while engaging in the community. 

Finally, the third aspect was the attitude toward physical change. Physical change is a natural part of normative ageing. However, higher levels of openness to experience trait predicted more positive attitudes toward physical change. Since openness to experience is characterized by flexibility and curiosity, the authors explain this finding by suggesting that flexibility helps older individuals adapt to the changes, while (intellectual) curiosity may help them compensate the loss in physical domain by focusing on abstract interests instead. 

On top of predicting attitudes toward own ageing from personality traits, the authors also found that those who reported higher levels of physical health in the beginning of the study faced less deterioration in the health domain in the following 10 years, while also showing greater improvement in self-reported mental health. Furthermore, individuals who initially reported higher mental health had greater improvement in their self-reported mental health as well as satisfaction with life. These results reflect the significance of maintaining a good physical and mental health as much as we can throughout our life in developing a positive relationship with our own ageing processes. 

There is another interesting longitudinal study by Korndat et al. (2019) mostly with findings similar to Bryant et al. (2016) but with an important additional insight toward the topic of self-directed ageism. The authors used data spanning 20 years from two cohorts from Germany, with those in their mid-life (ages 40-60) and those in their late-life (ages 60-80). By including a cohort in their mid-life, in addition to late-life only, they could investigate how personality-attitude relationship may change across life stages. This was an important distinction since they showed that the trait extraversion could relate to either more negative or positive attitudes toward ageing depending on the stage of life. It was precisely that more extraverted individuals showed more positive attitudes in their mid-40s, while they showed less positive attitudes in their late-50s toward their own ageing. According to the authors, this finding could be explained by the fact that late mid-life or early late-life is characterized by retirement and that more extraverted individuals, compared to less extraverted individuals, may respond more strongly toward the changes associated with retirement, such as reduced social activities or involvement in social networks. In a nutshell, not only our personality traits but also our life-stages influence the development of our attitudes toward our own ageing. 

Now, what messages can we take home? 

Our personalities and life-stages can provide us with some tools to become aware of who we are, what beliefs we hold, why we may hold such beliefs and how to grow to be more inclusive of ourselves and others despite the negative feelings that certain beliefs may entail. For instance, we can decide to take individual responsibility by trying to identify ways to manage our negative emotions; by being more open to experience and being involved in diverse activities life brings to us; or by keeping a physically and mentally active life despite the sedentary lifestyle that the current world pushes upon us. By being aware and breaking our biases about our own ageing at different stages of life, we can not only become more inclusive toward ourselves but also toward others. 

At the same time, stressing the existence of self-directed ageism should not mean the environment we live in is disregarded. On the contrary, according to the lifespan theory of views on ageing (VoA) by Kornadt et al. (2020), our views develop and change under the influence of different contexts at different levels. Also, VoA is conceptualized as both drivers and products of development across the lifespan. Just like the views we hold can exert influence on our social contexts, experiences and self-development, the understanding we gain of what it means to get older and be old can also influence our views. And this development and change does not happen in a vacuum but within a given historical, cultural and social context. Therefore, as much as we may be free to decide for ourselves to become aware and more inclusive, we need our societies to back us up in communicating unbiased views and integrating a fair working system as we go through our lives. 

Right now, do not feel bad for experiencing age-related negative feelings since our attitudes start forming in childhood and continue developing due to things like societal expectations and the culture we live in, much like our life-stages or personalities. However, let’s also think twice before saying “I’m too old for this!” and take action in our private lives to become more inclusive toward our own age as well as others’. 

Zeynep

References 

Bryant, C., Bei, B., Gilson, K. M., Komiti, A., Jackson, H., & Judd, F. (2016). Antecedents of attitudes to aging: A study of the roles of personality and well-being. The Gerontologist, 56(2), 256-265. 

Kornadt, A. E., Siebert, J. S., & Wahl, H. W. (2019). The interplay of personality and attitudes toward own aging across two decades of later life. PLoS One, 14(10), e0223622. 

Kornadt, A. E., Kessler, E. M., Wurm, S., Bowen, C. E., Gabrian, M., & Klusmann, V. (2020). Views on ageing: A lifespan perspective. European Journal of Ageing, 17(4), 387-401. 

World Health Organization. (2020, December 14). The decade of healthy ageing: A new UN-wide initiative. https://www.who.int/news/item/14-12-2020-decade-of-healthy-ageing-a-new-un-wide-initiative 

World Health Organization. (2021). Global report on ageism. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240016866 

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