There is much empirical evidence that supports the concept that ageist attitudes are prevalent in American society. These include studies of ageism in the media (Bishop & Krause, 1984) and humor (Davies, 1977; Palmore, 1971), ageist attitudes in children (Mitchell, Wilson, Revicki, & Parker, 1985), young adults (Weinberger & Millham, 1975), and older adults (Kastenbaum & Durkee, 1964a; Woolf, 1988), and ageism as it affects the self-concept of the older adult (Kastenbaum & Durkee, 1964a). Each of these will be discussed below with ageism and the effect on the self-concept discussed in another section.
There is a large body of research in the area of television and aging. Studies have examined the depictions of older adults and aging in prime-time (Bell, 1992; Dail, 1988; Gerbner, Gross, Signorielli, & Morgan, 1980; Northcott, 1975; Peterson, 1973), in daytime serials (Elliott, 1984; Ramsdell,f 1973), and Saturday morning cartoons (Bishop & Krause, 1984). Overall, the research on television has been somewhat contradictory. Early research has primarily demonstrated that the proportion of older individuals on television is under represented and when present, their image is primarily negative. Two more recent studies have challenged this characterization. These studies will be discussed below.
Gerbner et al. (1980) analyzed the data provided from a representative national survey of 4,460 adults. The study examined the amount of television viewing and its relationship to various attitudes about older adults. Their study demonstrated that heavy television viewers were more likely to believe negative stereotypes about the aged. For example, heavy television viewers believed that older adults were more rigid and less open-minded. In addition, they believed that the health and longevity of older adults is declining. These notions are contrary to empirical evidence within the field of gerontology. In addition, prime-time television has primarily ignored older adults (less than 5 percent of television character are portrays as over the age of 60) (Northcott, 1975).
Elliott (1984) examined the portrayal of older adults in daytime serials (soap operas). Thirteen daytime serials were monitored for a period of four weeks. The number of characters over the age of 65 was recorded (judged on the basis of physical appearance and social role) and specific behaviors recorded. The content analysis demonstrated that 8 percent of the characters in the shows observed were judged to be 65 or older. On the whole, older males were characterized as good listeners and females were characterized as nurturers. This supports Ramsdell's (1973) description of daytime serial older adults as, "valued advisors-in-residence with the children and grandchildren" (p. 302). Thus, while the depiction of the older adult in daytime television is not primarily negative, it is stereotypic. It should also be noted that in the daytime serials observed there was a sever paucity of minority older adults represented.
Bishop and Krause (1984) examined the portrayal of older persons or old age in 106 cartoons broadcast over a six week period of time. The results showed that old age or older adults were represented rarely in Saturday morning cartoons. If they were present, it was typically in one of two forms. Either, the older person was presented as the evil character in the cartoon (i.e., witch), or as someone who was slower and frailer and in need of the superhero's help. The authors conclude that while an image of older individuals is often not present, the image given, however infrequent, fosters ageism and a negative attitude towards the elderly.
A content analysis was conducted on 12 family oriented, prime-time television programs (Dail, 1988). This study purports to demonstrate an increase in the number of older adults portrayed on television. In addition, the analysis demonstrated that old age was presented positively in the programs studied whereas middle-age was portrayed as being problematic. However, it is important to remember that a specific class of television programs were studied. One can not generalize from this study to all of prime-time television.
Bell (1992) examined the images of the aging in the top five prime-time shows for 1989 (as determined by the Nielson Ratings for the demographic group of 55 years of age or older. The top five shows included Murder She Wrote, The Golden Girls, Matlock, Jake and the Fatman, and In the Heat of the Night. Interestingly, each of these programs feature well-known and respected individuals and the characters who are themselves over the age of 55. This would seem to imply a trend towards an increase in the number of television programs which highlight positively older characters. This research needs however to be replicated to confirm this trend. A quick review of the Nielson ratings for the week of June 15 - 21, 1998 places Seinfeld, Just Shoot Me, ER, Dateline, and Primetime Live in the top five (UltimateTV, 1998). None of these shows features an elderly individual as its main character. Interestingly, of the top ten programs, 6 were investigative reporting type programming. Therefore, Bell's research should be extended to include more recent programming.
While television programming may have exhibited an increase in positive imagery of aging during the late 1980s, this trend may not have spilled over to all media. For example, a 1994 (Zoglin) article in Time magazine discusses the aging trend in detective programming. The article was titled "Murder, They Wheezed" and described the central characters as "arthritic whodunits" and "old codgers". Accompanying graphics displayed the detectives as broken down and decrepit.
While contradictory, the above demonstrates that television has tended to present an unrealistic picture of the older adult. However, it should be noted that this representation may not necessarily result in the adoption of ageist attitudes by viewers. Passuth and Cook (1985), for example, propose that television viewing has a small impact on knowledge of and attitudes about aging, and effects are primarily restricted to younger people.
Negative humor towards aging and older adults is popular in American culture. Davies (1977) and Palmore (1971) both analyzed jokes concerning the elderly. They found that the jokes dealt primarily with cognitive decline, death, and sexual ability and interest. These jokes all promote common myths and stereotypes about the older population.
The research concerning children's attitudes towards older adults is limited and the findings inconclusive. For example, Thomas and Yamamoto (1975) found that children have a positive attitude towards the aging process. Baggett and Dickinson (1978) demonstrated that children evaluated older adults either positively or neutrally. This can be contrasted with the interview study conducted by Jantz, Seefeldt, Gapler, and Serock (1977). They found that school-age children tended to view aging and older adults negatively. The research of Weinberger (1979) supports the findings of Jantz et al. (1977). It has been suggested, however, that children do not view old age unidimensionally. The following study by Mitchell et al. (1985) was thus conducted.
Two hundred and twenty five children were shown a series of sketches of older and younger adults. The children were then asked a series of 25 yes/no questions such as "Is s/he weak?" or "Does s/he make you feel happy?" The researchers concluded that the children1s perceptions of older adults could be broken down on three dimensions: personality trait, affective relations, and physical abilities. The study demonstrated that a child could rate an individual negative on one dimension while positive for another. For example, a child might rate an individual negatively for a personality trait dimension (they are messy or aggressive) and at the same time rate them positively on the affective relations dimension (they are fun to be with). This multidimensionality of perceptions may explain the mixed research findings cited above.
Mitchell et al. (1985) also found that women fared better than men. Women were perceived overall more positively than men on all three dimensions. This supports the findings of Fillmer (1982). Fillmer examined the reactions of elementary school children to a picture of an older man, an older woman, a young man, and a young woman. Children consistently picked more negative adjectives when discussing the older individuals. Children also described the older man far more negatively than the older woman, and children were more likely to say they would associated with the woman as opposed to the man. Therefore, a gender difference may exist with respect to the perception of older adults by children.
Much of the research that has been conducted has examined the attitudes of undergraduate and graduate college students toward the aged. Tuckman and Lorge (1953) conducted on of the first ageism studies. This study demonstrated that graduate students believe many of the common stereotypes and misconceptions about older adults. For example, they tended to characterize later adulthood as a time of loneliness, ill health, rigidity, and decreased cognitive functioning.
Kastenbaum and Durkee (1964b) examined the attitudes towards aging and the aged for a variety of age groups (junior high, high school, professional school, graduate school). The authors reported that all age groups had a predominately negative attitude towards the older individual. Old age and aging was described by subjects as an unpleasant experience and older adults were viewed as living in the past.
Golde and Kogan (1959) used a sentence completion task to assess the attitudes of younger adults towards older adults. One hundred undergraduates completed 25 sentence stems. The authors concluded that old age as a period in life is viewed as markedly different than young adulthood. Also, most of the perceptions of older people are negative, although not entirely. Thus, while not all negative, they were still stereotypic.
A multi-dimensional, multi-method analysis was used by Weingerger and Millham (1975) to study ageism. Six hundred subjects were tested by using two methodologies. The first method consisted of an attitude questionnaire. Using this methodology, subjects were found to display more negative attitudes toward older than younger adults. The second method consisted of rating of autobiographical sketches (equal in social desirability). Use of this methodology resulted in more positive ratings for older adults than younger adults. Therefore, the two methodologies resulted in disparate conclusions. This disparity of results was also found by Woolf (1988).
The studies cited above demonstrate that children and young adults often maintain a stereotypic and negative view of aging and older adults. However, the results are not conclusive. Some studies have found that adolescents and young adults may not be biased against older adults. This disparity of research may be the result of several factors. First, as in the Weinberger and Millham (1975) study, different methodologies may result in different findings. Research using a multidimensional approach underscores the existence of both positive and negative biases towards aging and older adults. Second, Weinberger and Millhams1 (1975) study raises the issue of possible methodological artifact being interpreted as results based on the construct under study. Third, Austin (1985) maintains that increasingly positive attitudes towards aging and older adults have developed over time. It has been hypothesized that this might be the result of changing society values and the increased visibility of older adults (Tibbits, 1979). Finally, there may be differences between the various subgroups under study. Thus, gender, race, ethnicity, religion etc. may all interact differently with individual's attitudes towards aging. For an example of a possible gender-ageism interaction, see Woolf (1988) detailed in another section of this paper. Three studies may be helpful in clarifying some of these points.
Iverster and King (1977) studied the attitudes of adolescent high school students toward the aged. A total of 438 students completed an attitude questionnaire developed by the authors. The following results were obtained. First, the adolescents tended to view old age and aging positively. Second, no difference was found between the attitudes of 9th and 12th graders. Third, the amount of contact with grandparents had no effect on the attitudes towards older adults. Fourth, no race differences were found. Fifth, a difference was found for socioeconomic status. The higher socioeconomic groups viewed old age more positively than the lower socioeconomic group. This finding makes sense intuitively as this country is not a good place to be old and poor. Thus, using a multi-dimensional approach, attitudes toward the aged were the most affected by socioeconomic status.
Schmidt and Boland (1986) also used a multi-dimensional approach. They maintain that the methodologies used to study ageism are too simplistic, they are usually unidimensional and only measure the most general of attitudes towards older adults. Rather, Schmidt and Boland maintain that multiple stereotypes of the older adult are probable. Eighty-six college students participated in the study. The study consisted of three parts. First, subjects generated a list of traits and characteristics that they felt described a typical older person. Second, a different group of subjects sorted these traits into groups. These groups consisted of all the traits that could be found in one older person. These data were then analyzed by means of a cluster analysis to identify the various older adult stereotypes. These stereotypes were then judged to be positive or negative.
Schmidt and Boland (1986) found evidence for multiple stereotypes of the elderly. Eight negative stereotypes and four positive stereotypes were generated. An example of a negative stereotype would be a recluse or nosy neighbor. An example of a positive stereotype would include perfect grandparent or a sage. It should be noted that the majority of stereotypes were negative, although positive stereotypes were demonstrated as well.
Austin (1985) maintains that a shift in attitudes towards older adults has occurred over time. This shift has manifested itself in an increasingly positive attitude towards the aged. Austin tested 144 undergraduate students using a rating of disability scale. One of the items on the scale was old age. The results were compared with previous studies to examine differences over time. The findings demonstrated that attitudes towards disabilities were very consistent over time. Only the attitude towards old age revealed a shift. Subjects attitudes towards old age demonstrated a positive shift over time.
The empirical evidence described above examining attitudes towards older adults is inconclusive. Some research demonstrates that existence of ageist attitudes and other research does not. This is most likely due to the various methodologies used to study ageism. In addition, some of the current research appears to suggest that attitudes toward the elderly are becoming increasingly positive (Austin, 1985). However, these attitudes may be directed primarily towards stereotypically defined older adults. As such, these attitudes may not be directed towards older adults as individuals but rather towards a stereotype that does not exist in reality. Therefore, even though the younger individual is responding to the older adult more positively, the use of the stereotype still maintains a distance between the two. Certainly more work needs to be conducted in this area.
Few studies have examined the attitudes of older adults towards aging and aged individuals. The majority of these studies have examined the perceptions of older adults using institutionalized aged individuals as subjects. For example, Kastenbaum and Durkee (1964a) surveyed 49 patients who were hospital residents receiving medical, rehabilitative, or psychosocial treatment, and Tuckman and Lavell (1957) used individuals who were residents of a home for the indigent. Hence, sample selection is a major problem for these studies as institutionalized aged comprise only 5 percent of the aging population (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1983). Therefore, the negative view of older adults reported in these studies may have been the result of the subject's own negative experience of old age and/or life.
Woolf's 1988 study included an examination of healthy, community dwelling older adult's attitudes towards older men and women. For a review of this research see The Effects of Age and Gender on Perceptions of Younger and Older Adults
It should be mentioned here that very little of the empirical research in the field of ageism addresses the cause of ageist attitudes. Rather, it is geared towards the understanding of the ageist attitudes themselves. Woolf (1988) examined the relationship of knowledge of aging with ageist attitudes and found no correlation. In other words, the level of one's ageist attitudes appears to be independent of one's knowledge about aging or the aging process.