Age Group Dissociation
Definition and Overview
Negative views of aging can have detrimental effect on older adults’ self-concept, cognitive performance, well-being, and health (Levy 2009; Wurm et al. 2017). However, older adults are motivated to counteract negative age stereotypes and engage in self-protective behavior. Age-group dissociation is defined as the “tendency to put psychological distance between oneself and similarly aged people” (see Weiss and Lang 2012, p. 154).
Key Research Findings
There is considerable evidence demonstrating that when confronted with negative age stereotypes, older adults increase psychological distance between themselves and older people. Studies across a variety of countries and cohorts show that older adults often perceive their age peers as being “old” but themselves as much “younger” (Stephan et al. 2015) and consider themselves to be an exception rather than a typical member of older people (Weiss and Lang, 2009; Weiss and Freund 2012). More specifically, experimental studies demonstrate that when negative age stereotypes were activated, older adults tended to disidentify with the group of older adults and reported to feel significantly younger than their chronological age (Weiss and Lang 2012). In addition, another set of studies showed that in the face of negative age stereotypes, older adults subsequently (a) directed their gaze away from photographs of older adults and (b) indicated to feel more similar to middle-aged adults that were shown in photographs (Weiss and Freund, 2012). Recently, research has replicated and extended the effects on age-group dissociation in longitudinal and cross-cultural samples (Hess et al. 2017; Armenta et al. 2018).
For example, these studies show that negative age stereotypes elicit patterns of distancing among adults across different stereotype domains (e.g., health, work) and as a function of transitioning into later adulthood (Kornadt et al. 2016). Age-group dissociation is linked to better well-being, health, and cognitive performance in older adults. Those older adults who report younger subjective ages and disidentify with older people (“low identifiers”) show higher levels of psychological well-being, are more open-minded, and feel that they have more time left in life (Weiss and Lang 2009, 2012; Canada et al. 2013). There is also evidence that age-group dissociation represents a self-protective strategy in coping with negative age stereotypes. For example, studies show that the detrimental impact of negative age stereotypes on self-esteem, well-being, or cognitive performance could be prevented when older adults showed age group dissociation (O’Brien and Hummert 2006; Kang and Chasteen 2009; Weiss et al. 2013; Armenta et al. 2018). However, age-group dissociation could also entail negative consequences as it represents a purely individualistic attempt to repel negative age stereotypes and, thus, may perpetuate ageism and further legitimize and reinforce negative age stereotypes in society.
Future Directions for Research
Future research needs to further address the fundamental psychological role of age-group dissociation in the aging process to shed more light on its antecedents, consequences, and boundary conditions. One open question is, when and why older adults internalize (i.e., engage in self-stereotyping and assimilate their self-views and behavior; Levy 2009) or dissociate from (contrast their self-views and behavior) negative age stereotypes. Weiss and Kornadt (2018) recently proposed an integrated model of age Stereotype Internalization and Dissociation (SIDI) that specifies contextual (e.g., stereotype context and structure) and individual (i.e., self-relevance, essentialist beliefs about aging) factors that elicit either age stereotype internalization or dissociation.
As people grow older, they tend to distance and dissociate themselves from their age (feeling younger than their actual age) and their age peers (disidentifying from older people).
Empirical evidence suggests that this is a response to negative old age stereotypes portraying old age as unfavorable and undesirable. Studies also show that age-group dissociation can mitigate and counteract the detrimental consequences of negative age stereotypes.
- Kornadt AE, Hess TM, Voss P, Rothermund K (2016) Subjective age across the life span: a differentiated, longitudinal approach. J Gerontol B 73:767–777Google Scholar