The effect of stereotype-threat on memory and cortisol in older adults
Ryan, Ashley Dawn
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Stereotype-threat is characterized by underperformance on a task after exposure to a negative, self-relevant stereotype. In the case of older adults, there is a widely-held stereotype that older adults have poor memory function. It has been suggested that reminding older individuals of this stereotype results in poorer memory performance on effortful, but not automatic memory tasks. Further, testing older adults under certain conditions may increase cortisol levels, a biomarker associated with stress. The present study investigated whether stereotype-threat affects implicit and explicit memory, and cortisol levels in older adults. We gave older adults (n = 62) an incidental encoding task wherein they rated a list of common words for pleasantness. Participants were randomly assigned to threat-activated or threat-eased groups, with each group reading a newspaper article designed to either induce or ease the salience of stereotype-threat. Memory was tested implicitly, via word stem completion task, and explicitly, via free recall task and forced choice recognition. Saliva samples were taken before encoding and after memory testing to assess changes in cortisol. Stereotype threat had no effect on implicit or explicit memory, or the change in cortisol levels over time. However, there was a negative relationship between salivary cortisol levels and free recall in older men. We suggest that this finding may be explained by sex differences in reactivity and resilience to psychosocial stressors. Further, we discuss the difficulties involved with measuring stereotype-threat in older adults, who are often tested in youth-favouring settings.