Abstract Objectives This study investigated the perceived acceptability of benevolent and hostile ageist behaviors targeting older adults and whether the acceptability varied depending on the age of the perceiver and the relationship between the person engaging in the ageist behavior and the recipient of the ageist behavior. Method Young, middle-aged, and older adult participants rated the acceptability of 13 benevolent and 17 hostile ageist behaviors targeting older adults for five different relationship types: younger family members, same-age family members, familiar service workers, unfamiliar service workers, and friends. Results Participants, regardless of age, rated benevolent ageism to be more acceptable than hostile ageism. Young adults were more accepting of hostile ageist acts than middle-aged and older adults were. However, overall acceptability of hostile ageist acts was low. Familiarity with the perpetrator also affected perceptions of the acceptability of ageist acts. Discussion Perceptions of the acceptability of ageism targeting older adults differed as a function of participant age, ageism type, and relationship type. Findings are discussed in light of social identity theory and intergroup contact theory. Ageism, Attitudes, Beliefs, Stereotypes Ageism is defined as discrimination against a person because of their age (Butler, 1969). Ageism can take two forms, hostile and benevolent. Hostile ageism occurs when individuals are directly discriminated against, for example, voicing concerns that older adults are utilizing too many societal resources by continuing to seek medical care after a certain age (North & Fiske, 2012) or not allowing older people to participate in activities because of their age. In contrast, benevolent acts reflect underlying assumptions that an older individual lacks competence and needs help. For instance, offering to help an older adult carry heavy groceries to the car or to cross the street, implicitly reflects the assumption that older adults are physically incapable, which may not be true (Thornton, 2002). It is important to understand perceptions of ageism toward older adults because it can undermine an individual’s autonomy and abilities, which could result in lower feelings of control among older adults (Hess, 2006). Furthermore, age-based discrimination can negatively affect adults’ sense of well-being (Garstka, Schmitt, Branscombe, & Hummert, 2004). Little is known about impressions of hostile and benevolent ageism. It is assumed that hostile ageism will be perceived negatively (North & Fiske, 2013). However, it is not as clear how benevolent ageism will be perceived. Benevolent ageism targeting older adults is more common (Cuddy & Fiske, 2002) and may be less noticeable to others (Marti, Bobier, & Baron, 2000). The result may be that benevolent behaviors are perceived as less severe. It is also possible that perceptions will differ based on whether a perceiver is a member of the affected group or not. Research on intergroup bias suggests that negative acts against a member of one’s ingroup will be perceived more negatively, i.e., less acceptable, than acts against a member of one’s outgroup (Brewer, 1999). For example, offers of help toward individuals who are blind are viewed as well-intentioned by those in the outgroup but viewed as offensive by members of the ingroup (Wang, Silverman, Gwinn, & Dovidio, 2015). Although research investigating the acceptability of ageist behaviors is limited, intergroup contact theory may offer a perspective for understanding when ageist behaviors will be viewed as more or less acceptable. Intergroup contact theory suggests that attributing feelings of closeness with an outgroup member can reduce perceptions of age bias (Pettigrew, 1997). Consistent with the theory, research investigating elderspeak (i.e., a patronizing tone used to address older adults) suggests that older adults hold complex, multidimensional impressions of patronizing speech depending on the nature of the relationship with the speaker (O’Connor & St. Pierre, 2004). Older adults perceived more warmth and interpreted the speech as less patronizing when it was delivered by a friend than by an unfamiliar social partner (e.g., a service worker). Similarly, the sexism literature suggests that the acceptability of sexist remarks is interpreted differently depending on previous interactions with the perpetrator (Michniewicz & Vandello, 2015). Within the ageism domain, research suggests that increased positive contact with older adults has the potential to reduce hostile forms of ageism (Levy, 2018). However, it is unclear whether the reduction in ageist behaviors would translate to a reduction of benevolent ageism. Thus, perceptions of benevolent and hostile ageist acts aimed at older adults warrants further investigation. The current research examined young, middle-aged, and older adults’ perceptions of the acceptability of a range of ageist behaviors targeting older adults. We had three hypotheses. We predicted that benevolent ageism toward older adults would be more acceptable to all participants compared to hostile behaviors. Consistent with ingroup–outgroup bias, we also expected that young adult participants would be more accepting of ageist acts toward older adults than middle-aged and older adult participants. And finally, consistent with intergroup contact theory, we hypothesized that ageist behaviors toward older adults would be perceived as less severe, and therefore more acceptable, when committed by a friend or familiar social partner. Methods Participants This study consisted of 186 young adults (M = 26.66, SD = 4.06, range = 18–34, 45.7% female), 128 middle-aged adults (M = 42.66, SD = 7.18, range = 35–59, 59.4% female), and 120 older adults (M = 69.01, SD = 6.76, range = 60–84, 65.8% female). This sample size is comparable to similar studies investigating perceptions of ageism (e.g., North & Fiske, 2013) and patronizing behavior (Wang et al., 2015). These studies used between-subjects designs containing four or more conditions, and had adequate power to detect moderate effect sizes. The current study used a within-subjects survey approach, resulting in more participants per cell. Younger and middle-aged participants were recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk as part of a larger project. Forty-two percent of the older adult sample was recruited using Mechanical Turk. The older adult sample recruited from Mechanical Turk did not differ from the community-dwelling sample of older adults on age (p = .42), percent female (p = .54), education (p = .46), or race (p = .18). This study was approved by the Institutional Review Boards of Furman University and The University of Toronto. Procedure Participants completed a 30-min online Qualtrics survey individually at their own pace in their homes or in small groups at a lifelong learning center. Participants provided informed consent, completed a demographics form, then reported their opinions about the acceptability of 13 benevolent and 17 hostile acts targeting older adults. Each item was rated for each of the five different categories of relationships. The five different categories of relationships are: Younger family members (e.g., children, grandchildren), same-age family members (e.g., spouse, siblings), familiar service workers (e.g., family doctors, hair stylist), unfamiliar service workers (e.g., someone who would not recognize you), and friends (adapted from O’Connor & St. Pierre, 2004). The hostile and benevolent ageism items were adapted from the Relating to Old People Evaluation (Cherry & Palmore, 2008), The Ageism Survey (Palmore, 2001), and the Ambivalent Ageism Scale (Cary, Chasteen, & Remedios, 2017). Each item was rated on a 5-point Likert scale for all five relationships from “Never Acceptable” to “Always Acceptable” (see Supplementary Appendix for complete measure). At the end of the survey, participants were compensated and debriefed about the purpose of the study. Results A 3 (participant age: young, middle-aged, older) × 2 (ageism type: benevolent, hostile) × 5 (relationship type: younger family members, same-age family members, familiar service workers, unfamiliar service workers, friends) mixed measures analysis of variance assessed acceptability of ageism toward older adults, with ageism type and relationship type serving as within-subject factors. Contrast analyses with Bonferroni corrections were conducted for significant effects at the p < .01 level unless otherwise noted. The three-way interaction between participant age, ageism type, and relationship type on acceptability ratings did not reach significance (p = .11). A significant participant age and ageism type interaction emerged (F (2, 432) = 6.04, p = .003, η2= .027). Pairwise comparisons revealed no significant differences by participant age for benevolent behaviors targeting older adults (MYA = 2.96, MMA = 2.89, MOA = 2.86), whereas middle-aged (M = 1.72, SE = 0.044) and older adults (M = 1.68, SE = 0.045) rated hostile behaviors targeting older adults significantly less acceptable than young adults (M = 1.98, SE = 0.037). The analysis also revealed a main effect of relationship type (F (4, 432) = 156.74, p < .001, η2 = .266), which was qualified by an interaction between participant age and relationship type (F (8, 432) = 4.48, p < .001, η2 = .020, see Figure 1). All participants considered ageist behaviors that targeted older adults from friends and same-aged family members to be most acceptable. All participants found ageism from unfamiliar service workers to be least acceptable. Differences emerged in perceptions of acceptability of ageist behaviors from younger family members and familiar service workers. Young adults rated ageism from familiar service workers as less acceptable than ageism from young family members, middle-aged adults rated ageism from familiar service workers and young family members as equally acceptable, and older adults viewed ageism from familiar service workers to be more acceptable than ageism from young family members. Examining the interaction by participant age, young adults, compared to older adults, were more accepting of ageist acts initiated by friends (p < .05). Young adults, compared to middle-aged and older adults, were also more accepting of ageist acts initiated by a same-age family member (p < .05), a younger family member (p < .001), and an unfamiliar service worker (p < .001). Young and older adults were more accepting of ageist behaviors from a familiar service worker than middle-aged adults were (p < .05). Figure 1. View largeDownload slide Acceptability of ageism by participant age group and relationship type. Figure 1. View largeDownload slide Acceptability of ageism by participant age group and relationship type. The main effect of relationship type was also qualified by an interaction with ageism type (F (4, 432) = 9.91, p < .001, η2 = .022, see Figure 2). Benevolent ageism was perceived as more acceptable from a same-aged family member compared to a friend (p < .05). Ratings of young family members and familiar workers did not differ (p = .84). Benevolent acts committed by unfamiliar service workers were rated as least acceptable (p < .001). Overall, hostile acts were perceived as unacceptable. However, an inspection of the means by relationship type revealed that hostile ageist acts were perceived as equally acceptable from same-age family members and friends (p = .12), less acceptable from young family members (p < .001) or familiar service workers (p < .001), and least acceptable coming from unfamiliar service workers (p < .001). Figure 2. View largeDownload slide Acceptability of ageism by ageism type and relationship type. Figure 2. View largeDownload slide Acceptability of ageism by ageism type and relationship type. Discussion This study investigated age differences in perceptions of the acceptability of hostile and benevolent behaviors targeting older adults and the impact of the nature of the relationship between the perpetrator and recipient. Benevolent ageism was perceived as more acceptable than hostile ageism across age groups. Overall, average ratings for the acceptability of benevolent ageism were centered around the midpoint of the scale, however, these ratings were significantly more acceptable than hostile acts of ageism. Age differences, reflecting ingroup and outgroup dynamics, emerged in the perceptions of hostile ageism, with older adults reporting less acceptance of hostile ageism than young adults. The greater acceptance of benevolent ageism suggests prevalent cultural norms that interpret benevolent ageism as polite and helpful rather than harmful and invalidating. This acceptance may reflect the pervasiveness of negative stereotypes of older adults in general (Cuddy, Norton, & Fiske, 2005); therefore, ageist acts toward older adults may be seen as justified or expected. That age differences emerged in the acceptability of hostile acts could also reflect ingroup–outgroup differences. Young adults may not identify with older adults and, therefore, it is easier to accept negative acts toward that group. Further, research shows that young adults often have incorrect assumptions of general decline in older adulthood (Cadieux, Chasteen, & Packer, 2018) and they have more negative views of adulthood compared to other age groups (Rupp, Vodanovich, & Credé, 2005). That young adults’ acceptability ratings of hostile acts are higher than older adults’ is consistent with those beliefs. The current findings also support intergroup contact theory, finding that ageist acts are perceived differently depending on the familiarity of the partner. Benevolent ageist acts coming from same-aged family members and friends were viewed as more acceptable, suggesting that familiarity of the perpetrator provides a context that results in the acts being perceived more positively, perhaps as in jest rather than as a slight. Interestingly, perceptions of familiarity appear to be perceived differently by members of different age groups. Young adults rated ageism from familiar service workers as less acceptable than ageism from young family members, which was the opposite of what older adults reported. The pattern of results suggests that young participants prioritized family membership as a measure of familiarity whereas older adults appear to have based their judgments on whether the perpetrator is closer in age with the target of the ageist act. This may result in situations of miscommunication and unintentional offense, in which young adults engage in ageist behaviors assuming that they are acceptable, or helpful, while older individuals view the action more negatively. Benevolent and hostile forms of ageism can negatively impact older adults, affecting their health (e.g., Levy, Hausdorff, Hencke, & Wei, 2000) and well-being (Garstka et al., 2004). It is necessary to understand how ageist acts are viewed to better understand when ageist acts will be most harmful and when they will have a lesser impact. A positive outcome of the current study is that acceptability of ageism was relatively low, especially for hostile ageist acts. However, this study also suggests that individuals perceive biases as more acceptable from certain sources and that benevolent ageist acts are more acceptable than hostile. This distinction is important because benevolent acts of ageism tend to be more pervasive (Cuddy & Fiske, 2002), and the microaggression literature shows that frequent, subtle acts of bias accumulate into negative impacts (Burrow & Ong, 2010). Given that biases can negatively impact older adults (Nelson, 2016), more needs to be done to educate the public about the effects of benevolent ageism in order to change the norms around that type of bias, in a similar way that has been done for more hostile forms of ageism (e.g., elder abuse; Patterson & Malley-Morrison, 2006). Supplementary Material Supplementary data is available at The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences online. Funding This work was supported in part by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (410-2011-1687) to A. L. Chasteen. Conflict of Interest None reported. Acknowledgments The authors thank Morganne May for her assistance in data collection. 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The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences – Oxford University Press
Published: May 29, 2018
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