Age Ain’t Nothing But A Bias

Bruce Grierson revisits a surprising study from 1981 that suggests as much:

The men in the experimental group were told not merely to reminisce about this earlier era [1959], but to inhabit it – to “make a psychological attempt to be the person they were 22 years ago,” [psychologist Ellen Langer] told me. “We have good reason to believe that if you are successful at this,” Langer told the men, “you will feel as you did in 1959.” From the time they walked through the doors, they were treated as if they were younger. The men were told that they would have to take their belongings upstairs themselves, even if they had to do it one shirt at a time.

Each day, as they discussed sports (Johnny Unitas and Wilt Chamberlain) or “current” events (the first U.S. satellite launch) or dissected the movie they just watched (Anatomy of a Murder, with Jimmy Stewart), they spoke about these late-’50s artifacts and events in the present tense – one of Langer’s chief priming strategies. Nothing – no mirrors, no modern-day clothing, no photos except portraits of their much younger selves — spoiled the illusion that they had shaken off 22 years. At the end of their stay, the men were tested again. … They were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller – just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told me, had “put their mind in an earlier time,” and their bodies went along for the ride.

Cari Romm relays a similar finding from a more recent study:

In a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science, [Becca] Levy and researchers from Yale and the University of California Berkeley set out to learn the answer by studying 100 volunteers between the ages of 61 and 99 (the average age was 81). One group of participants was asked to write a story about “a senior citizen who is mentally and physically healthy,” while another group completed a subliminal-messaging computer task where positive aging-related words – “spry” or “wise,” for example – flashed across the screen too quickly for them to detect on a conscious level. As a control, others were asked to complete neutral versions of the same activities, either writing a story on a topic unrelated to aging or watching a screen with flashes of nonsense strings of letters.

The volunteers completed their respective tasks once a week for five weeks. At the beginning of the experiment and once weekly for three weeks after it ended, they also took three different tests: one that measured their attitudes towards old age in general; one that measured their perceptions of themselves as people of advanced age; and one that tested their gait, strength, and balance, or what the researchers called “physical functioning.”