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Psychological Science Stereotype Threat Strengthens Automatic Recall and Undermines Controlled Processes in Older Adults
Marie Mazerolle, Isabelle Régner, Pauline Morisset, François Rigalleau and Pascal Huguet Psychological Science 2012 23: 723 originally published online 18 May 2012 DOI: 10.1177/0956797612437607 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Hess. automatic and controlled processes. Isabelle Régner3. François Rigalleau1. 2009). Previous research on older adults showed that stereotype threat impaired memory performance when the memory component of the test was emphasized (Desrichard & Köpetz. & Rahhal. Colcombe.mazerolle@univ-poitiers. 2005.nav DOI: 10. using a process-dissociation procedure. especially screenings for memory problems. there will be more older people than children in most parts of the world (with the exception of Africa). thereby producing inflated age differences in memory tasks. more and more people will be concerned with the effects of aging on their mental faculties (e. 2003. Stein. reduced threat was usually associated with a reduced difference in performance between older participants and younger participants. Centre de Recherches sur la Cognition et l’Apprentissage.4. Aix-Marseille Université Abstract The threat of being judged stereotypically (stereotype threat) may impair memory performance in older adults. we offer evidence that stereotype threat consumes working memory resources in older adults. Kang & Chasteen. 2008) and girls (Huguet & Régner. 1996. Therefore. Stereotype threat refers to the concern that one’s performance may confirm a negative stereotype about the abilities of one’s group (Steele. This increasing concern will result in a growing demand for standardized neuropsychological testing. 2Centre de Recherches sur la Cognition et l’Apprentissage. and 4Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive & Fédération de Recherche 3C. 2009) may experience stereotype threat in math tests. More important. However..2.. Keywords stereotype threat. 2005. and sometimes eliminated the difference altogether (Desrichard & Kö by Marie Mazerolle on August 1.. and Pascal Huguet3. Kit.3. University of Poitiers—Psychology. Here.. France. Hinson. social cognition.3. Revision accepted 1/6/12 According to Science Daily (“Elderly to Outnumber Children. Poitiers. 2001). 2003). including stereotype threat. Pauline Morisset1. memory decline) and with the possibility of getting Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Kang & Chasteen. 2002). 2008). memory. Auman.Research Report Stereotype Threat Strengthens Automatic Recall and Undermines Controlled Processes in Older Adults Marie Mazerolle1. & Mateer. Tuokko. Hess et al. 2009.” 2010). when performance differences between younger adults and older adults were highlighted (Hess. and when they value memory ability Corresponding Author: Marie Mazerolle. 2009. University of Poitiers.1177/0956797612437607 http://pss. 2009). when they show high levels of stigma consciousness or perceived stereotype threat (Hess et al. Older adults seem to be more susceptible to the effects of stereotype threat on memory when they are highly educated (Hess et al. Department of Psychology. aging. Older adults may find neuropsychological Downloaded from pss. & Hertzog. 1997). stereotyped attitudes Received 11/9/11. 2005. in just a few decades.4 1 Psychological Science 23(7) 723–727 © The Author(s) 2012 Reprints and permission: sagepub. and when the age-related stereotype about memory was implicitly activated using priming techniques (Levy. 2009). & Forbes.. These findings indicate that competing models of stereotype threat are actually compatible and offer further reasons for researchers and practitioners to pay special attention to age-related stereotypes during standardized neuropsychological testing. 5 Rue Lefebvre. This demand may be exacerbated by age-related stereotypes (which predict that all people experience severe cognitive decline as they age). Johns. that stereotype threat undermines the controlled use of memory and simultaneously intensifies automatic response tendencies. Hasher. Hess et al. In these studies. 3Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. the underlying mechanisms of stereotype threat in older adults or other stigmatized groups remain poorly understood. Rahhal. this shows how powerful age-related stereotypes can be. for the first time. & Colcombe. we found.sagepub. Research has demonstrated that young women (Schmader. & very threatening for a variety of reasons.g. France. Poitiers 86000. 2009. 2007. France E-mail: marie. which ironically may also lower older adults’ test scores (Hess. 2012 .

but they matched in number of words and in length. To be included in the study.. 2012 . participants were given a list of 40 words and were instructed to read the words aloud and remember them for a later memory test.67 years. but each participant was also told that performance on these tasks usually does not differ between younger adults and older adults (i. 1991.. & McConnell. 1993). Each participant’s working memory score was the mean proportion of words that he or she correctly recalled across the 12 74-year-old participants with 9 to 12 years of school had to score at least 27 to be included. the effects of stereotype threat on performance might reflect temporary reductions of working memory capacity. 1991. and number of syllables of the last word. at least in part. Payne. Participants read aloud 12 series of two to five sentences (3 series per length). with their mere-effort hypothesis. frequency. All knew French as their native language. processdissociation procedure).35 years. which we said was “under construction. SD = 5.” Participants were randomly assigned to two conditions. Schmader & Johns. for age-related differences in performance on memory tasks. Participants were encouraged to do their very best (and no feedback was given). 1980). Schmader et al. We used the reading span task rather than the operation span task to avoid stereotype threat among females (no gender effect was found). Then. Thus.g. 1995) was used to assess working memory. (2008) argued. 80 word stems (i. In the study reported here.724 (Hess et al. by Marie Mazerolle on August 1. participants were asked to recall the last word of each sentence. Anthony. in the “second study. 2007.sagepub. 29 males) and 110 older adults (mean age = 69. As Hess et al. 1965). we relied on a process-dissociation procedure (Jacoby. According to Hess et al. the same information was given. Folstein. If stereotype threat can impair executive working memory resources in younger adults. (2009) have tried to test this hypothesis in older adults. 1975). SD = 2... 2003). stereotype threat motivates individuals to do well at the task. In the reduced-threat condition (55 younger and 56 older participants).5-s blank screen. The sentences used in the first and second reading span tasks were different. 2005) or by reducing the use of memory strategies (Hess et al.85 years. 1993. because strategy use requires executive-control resources such as those involved in working memory (Engle. 2008) and discovered that stereotype threat in older adults influences controlled and automatic uses of memory simultaneously. 2003). Furthermore. 2002). this may not be surprising because the working memory task was presented as a measure of “quantitative skills” (not as a memory test). which was presented as “fully validated and diagnostic of memory capacity. Downloaded from pss. each participant was simply told before the two tasks that both younger and older adults were participating in the study. In the “first study. Then... studies of young adults facing stereotype threat (e. & Folstein. the underlying mechanisms remain poorly understood. Each word appeared for 1. and participants were asked to complete each stem to produce either a word from the Method Participants One hundred ten younger adults (mean age = 21. which is often incorrect on difficult tasks (Zajonc.” to minimize evaluative pressure. an older participant had to meet or exceed a cutoff score corresponding to his or her age and educational level (Crum.. Schmader et al. Rydell. 2010. Régner et al. For instance.e.e. 81 females. In the stereotype-threat condition (55 younger and 54 older participants). 2008). Jamieson and Harkins (2007) proposed an alternative explanation. Older participants were screened for cognitive impairment using the Mini-Mental State Examination (Folstein. More important.” they completed a reading span task (Daneman & Carpenter. the first three letters of words) were presented one at a time. 70. & Van Der Linden. 2003. (2003) suggested. Only Hess et al. it could do the same in older adults. women taking math tests) indicate that it taxes working memory resources required for successful performance on difficult tasks (Beilock. we found direct evidence that stereotype threat consumes working memory resources in older adults. Experiment 1b) and another reading span task (similar in difficulty to that used earlier for a baseline). After each series. Mazerolle et al.01 years. In the cued-recall task (used for Jacoby’s. Hupet. Measures A French reading span task (Desmette.. The Present Research Although the occurrence of stereotype threat in older adults is now well documented.” participants were told that they were going to perform two memory tasks: a cued-recall task (see Jennings & Jacoby. 71 females.e. but they failed to show any reduction in working memory capacity under stereotype threat (i. thereby increasing activation of the prepotent response. when performance differences between younger and older adults were highlighted).. that the data in support of this alternative account cannot enable researchers to distinguish between the overproduction of a prepotent or automatic response and the failed inhibition of this response due to impaired working memory resources. Procedure The study was run in a single session.5 s on the computer screen and was followed by a 0. but participants were told that there were two separate studies. today there is little doubt that stereotype threat may account. According to their view. Schelstraete. 39 males) agreed to take part in a study on general mental abilities. however. This task was used to obtain a baseline measure of working memory. The few studies in this area have shown that this threat may operate by lowering performance expectations (Desrichard & Köpetz. that the tests were age fair). & McHugh.

they were to respond with a word that was not presented earlier. η2 = .e. The experimenter typed participants’ responses into the computer.02 (Fig. p < .. 214) = 8. F(1.14.001. In addition.73. Specifically.34. In the inclusion condition. Error bars indicate standard errors of the mean.77. in the exclusion condition. Downloaded from pss. Because stereotype threat typically occurs on difficult tasks.03. the exclusion score) was specified by the probability of controlled recollection (R) and the probability of automatic recollection (A) as follows: A(1 − R).05. The older participants showed lower controlled recollection in the threat condition (M = . p < .04.01). SE = . the probability of responding with a studied word in this condition (i. 214) = 12.13) than in the reduced-threat condition (M = . Performance in the inclusion and exclusion conditions provided a means of estimating the contribution of controlled and automatic processes in recall.01). whereas the younger participants performed equally well in the two conditions (threat condition: M = . they were to respond with the corresponding word from the earlier list. reduced threat) × Age Group (younger vs. the probability of responding with a studied word in this condition (i. η2 = . SD = . This analysis also revealed the expected interaction.02. reduced-threat condition: M = . p < . 216) = 6.78.87. a studied word was produced when the word either was recollected or came to mind automatically. p < . Participants were told that they were to use the stems as cues to help them remember the words that had been presented earlier.01) than in the threat condition (M = . F(1. they could not generate an alternative word). they should respond with the first word that came to mind. F(1.08. but could say “je passe” [“pass”] at any time during the 15 s if they felt they could not complete the stem. p < . reduced-threat condition: M = .sagepub. 216) = 50. If a stem appeared in red (exclusion condition). Word stems appeared in either blue or red and were presented in random order. η2 = . (Fig. Results Working memory We examined participants’ performance on the second reading span task using a Test Instructions (threat vs. 216) = 5. 214) = 4. thus..01. p < .12).01.01).72 As would be expected. the older participants performed less well than the younger participants in the threat condition.Stereotype Threat and Older Adults list presented earlier (inclusion condition) or a new word (exclusion condition).004. η2 = . thus. SD = . controlling for performance on the first reading span task and its interaction with test instructions.06.001. SE = . (The following paragraph reports adjusted means and standard errors. but if they could not remember it. η2 = .e. A 2 (test instructions) × 2 (age group) analysis of variance on this measure showed a main effect of age group. SE = Estimates of controlled recollection and automatic influences on cued recall As described earlier.. 214) = 4. p < .002.14) showed higher controlled recollection than their older counterparts (M = . 214) = 9. If a stem appeared in blue (inclusion condition).03. F(1.03. and the probability of automatic influences (A) could be estimated as follows: exclusion score/(1 − R).e. SE = . SD = .52. the probability of controlled recollection (R) could be estimated by subtracting the exclusion score from the inclusion score. η2 = . η2 = . participants were not informed of their errors and had no second chances (i.74 0.14.04. SE = .78 0. SD = .com by Marie Mazerolle on August 1. 2012 .19. whereas the two age groups performed equally well in the reduced-threat condition (F < 1). we estimated controlled recollection as the probability of responding with a studied word in the inclusion condition minus the probability of responding with a studied word in the exclusion condition. whereas the younger participants performed equally well in the two conditions (threat condition: M = . F(1.17.01) than in the reduced-threat condition (M = .10).01) performed better than their older counterparts (M = . SE = . see Table S1 in the Supplemental Material. . this analysis also showed a Test Instructions × Age Group interaction. The older participants performed less well in the threat condition (M = . younger participants (M = . SD = . the inclusion score) was R + A(1 − R).02. Participants were allowed a maximum of 15 s to complete each stem. Reading span score (adjusted for covariates) as a function of instructions condition and age group.77. In addition.78. F(1. More important. Younger Participants 0.83. 1). F(1. η2 = . SE = .80 Older Participants 725 Adjusted Reading Span Score 0. F(1. in case of error. SE = . F < 1). for unadjusted means and standard deviations.18.04.57. Therefore. SD = . participants performed better in the reduced-threat condition (M = . F < 1). Table S1 in the Supplemental Material available online presents the scores that we used in these formulas.76 0. the younger participants (M = . 2a).42.75. older) analysis of covariance. p < .70 Reduced Threat Threat Test Instruction Fig. 1. a studied word was produced only when it automatically came to mind and the participant failed to recollect that it had been presented earlier.

This fact indicates that age-related stereotypes need to be nullified to ensure valid standardized neuropsychological testing.02 (Fig. A 2 (test instructions) × 2 (age group) analysis of variance on the measure of automatic processes in cued recall showed a main effect of test instructions. F(1.51.. F(1. Supplemental Material Additional supporting information may be found at http://pss.08 .57. Zajonc. 216) = 3.10 . 2012 .18 .73.16 . our working memory and cued-recall findings provide further evidence that stereotype threat causes a transitory reduction in executive-control resources. Stereotype threat simultaneously strengthened automatic influences on cued recall. 2007). Automatic influences were estimated as the probability of responding with a studied word in the exclusion condition divided by the difference 1 minus R (with R calculated as inclusion score – exclusion score). In sum. η2 = .sagepub . in the threat condition. p < . 216) = 4. 2007).08 . Declaration of Conflicting Interests The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with respect to their authorship or the publication of this article. F < 1).06.06 .10 . our findings strongly suggest that competing models of stereotype threat are actually compatible. 2002.sagepub. Downloaded from pss.02 .13.00 Younger Participants Older Participants Discussion Stereotype threat impaired older adults’ working memory capacity. η2 = .14 .12 .07) than in the reduced-threat condition (M = . SD = . Estimate of Controlled Processes Reduced Threat Threat Test Instruction b . 216) = 12. 1965).11. SD = . but attributed this failure to the way the working memory task was characterized (as a “test of quantitative skills”).08).49. p < .14. F(1. 1993. Finally. it is noteworthy that all manifestations of stereotype threat in our research were obtained by simply informing older participants about the presence of younger participants (without mentioning any expected age-related differences in performance). Taken together. p < .com by Marie Mazerolle on August 1. SD = . SD = .04.004. Again. There is ample evidence that working memory is involved in the control of attention and deployment of inhibitory processes (Engle. the reduced contribution of controlled memory processes in older participants in the stereotype-threat condition is consistent with the reduction of their working memory capacity. the automatic use of memory was greater in the threat condition (M = . The older participants showed greater automatic use of memory in the threat condition (M = . Estimates of (a) controlled processes and (b) automatic processes in cued recall as a function of instructions condition and age group.04.08) than in the reduced-threat condition (M = . η2 = .001. In addition. SD = . 216) = 8. Therefore. Hess et al. provided that the age-related stereotype about memory is made relevant to the testing situation.04 .12. 2b). SD = . p < .18 . which may facilitate or impair their performance depending on whether those responses are correct or incorrect (Guerin.20 . It is also consistent with many social-psychology findings indicating that when people are apprehensive of being evaluated.17. Jacoby’s (1991) process-dissociation procedure revealed that stereotype threat simultaneously undermined older adults’ use of controlled memory processes and intensified their use of automatic memory processes.04 . This finding helps clarify a major debate about the respective contributions of executive working memory resources and prepotent responses to performance deficits due to stereotype threat. and this finding supports the alternative view that stereotype threat may be rooted in the overproduction of a prepotent response (Jamieson & Harkins. Unsworth & Engle. Our finding strengthens the view that stereotype threat operates in older adults performing working memory tasks. the older participants tended to show greater automatic use of memory than did their younger counterparts.06 .16 . Error bars indicate standard errors of the mean.08.15. F(1.08.12 . reduced-threat condition: M = .726 Mazerolle et al.02 . 2008).08).00 Younger Participants Older Participants Estimate of Automatic Processes Reduced Threat Threat Test Instruction Fig. More important. (2009) did not find an effect of stereotype threat on older adults’ working memory capacity. whereas younger participants’ automatic use of memory did not differ between the two conditions (threat condition: M = . and that impairment is consistent with earlier findings for younger adults facing stereotype threat (Schmader et al.06.02.14 . the interaction was significant. a . η2 = . their dominant responses are strengthened.20 .

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