Dr Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, conducted research to explore whether cultural attitudes and stereotypes about old age can contribute to physical decline. Elderly mainland Chinese people (who are held in high esteem in their community) and deaf Americans (who are not exposed to the same negative conversations about ageing) were questioned about their views on growing old, and their answers were compared to those from a random sample of adult Americans. The result was that Chinese and deaf people were less likely than the average American to mention memory loss as a feature of ageing. Young and old subjects from all three groups were then given a series of memory tests. It was found that young people performed equally well on tests of memory regardless of which group they belonged to, but elderly Chinese and elderly deaf people had significantly better memories than the average elderly American. Why? This strongly suggests that deterioration of memory may be influenced by our expectations and social contexts.
When we’re in our twenties and we forget something, we light heartedly attribute it to being in a hurry or not paying attention to what we were doing. When we’re in our sixties and we forget something, we immediately label it as having a “senior moment”. This is not only a false assessment but it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our beliefs shape our experiences. Our beliefs determine how much effort we put into something and how many of our brain cells we recruit to complete a task. The greater our belief in our ability, the more parts of our brains we engage and the more likely we are to succeed. In this way, we constantly reinforce our original beliefs about our abilities.
As soon as we give ourselves a label like “I am forgetful” or “I am losing my memory” we regard the condition as fixed and we become more conscious of everything that supports our label. Yet our capacity for remembering things is highly variable and dependent on how tired, stressed, interested, bored, distracted, self-absorbed and motivated we are, regardless of our age. Other researchers have found that older people appear more forgetful simply because they don’t care about the same things that younger people care about, including performance on memory tests!
The message is: don’t believe everything you think! Remain open to different explanations, and avoid using labels that limit you.