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Older People Can't Help Being Prejudiced.

Researchers at Ohio State University, Columbus, have found one explanation for why older adults tend to be more prejudiced than young people--they just can't help it. A study co-authored by William von Hippel, associate professor of psychology, suggests that, as they 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 seniors are more likely to think and express prejudicial thoughts, even when they want to be nonprejudiced 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."

In the experiment by Von Hippel and his colleagues, 36 young adults (18 to 25) and 35 older adults (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 black and the honors student (John) was white.

Study participants were 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 one 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 black. 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.

The question the researchers faced was why the older people showed more evidence of stereotypical thinking. Most white Americans are aware of negative stereotypes, such as that blacks are not as intelligent as whites, Von Hippel points out. Researchers believe that, because our culture is suffused with these stereotypes, we learn them at a very young age, and they automatically spring to mind when one comes into contact with blacks. However, nonprejudiced 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.
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2000
Words:473
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