Across the board, the studies pointed to the same conclusion: A person’s attitude towards old age affects how they fare once they reach it. Or, as The New York Times summed it up in a 2012 article on Levy’s work, “Old people become what they think.”
Which raises another question: Can what they think be changed?
In a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science, 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.”
The positive aging stories, the researchers noted, improved the participants' view of aging overall, but “yielded no significant effects” on either of the other measures—for the most part, those volunteers were no better off after writing the stories than they were before, either physically or in terms of their own self-image. In fact, the only participants who saw notable differences across all categories between the beginning and end of the experiment were the ones who had been exposed to the subliminal messages. (“Implicit messages,” as the researchers phrased it, certainly seems like a friendlier term than “subliminal messages,” which typically conjures up ideas of more sinister intentions. See: George W. Bush’s “RATS” election ad from 2000, or that Simpsons episode about the Navy recruitment spot disguised as a music video.)
One reason for the difference between the so-called “implicit” and “explicit” (story-writing) groups, Levy said, may be that asking the participants to actively consider the positive aspects of aging by writing about it also caused them to call to mind the more negative stereotypes. The participants who subconsciously processed the positive words, by contrast, did so with blank slates—because they weren’t specifically thinking about aging at the time, they didn’t have anything to act as a buffer or a counterbalance, allowing them to more readily absorb the sunnier portrayal.