There is as a disconnect. Few people or institutions would ever say that they were ageist, sexists, racist etc. In fact they would protest the opposite. Despite that, there is ample evidence that their behaviour does not match what they say. In a simple study of discrimination in hiring, researchers prepared two identical resumes. One was given a male name the other a female name. Faculty members in a science department were asked to select a manager to run one of their laboratories. Systematically they chose the “male” candidate. They even suggested a higher salary than the “female”. The startling thing was that these highly educated female and male faculty members displayed identical biases.
Ageism on Autopilot.
Attitudes apparently can by split in the same way as decisions. Psychologists suggest that:
Explicit Attitudes are “thoughts and feelings about social groups that are relatively more controlled, deliberate and reflective, conscious personal values”.
Implicit Attitudes are “relatively automatic, uncontrolled and inaccessible to introspection”.
These definitions mirror the ideas of Kahneman in his book on Think Fast and Thinking Slow, on decision making. His Type 1 and Type 2 decision-making reflect the identical ideas. Some decisions we take on “autopilot” and others are deliberative.
The psychologists have gone further and developed a way of measuring those implicit biases. The Implicit Attitude Test (IAT) is available to test many different discriminatory biases. I recently took the Ageist version.
The task appears simple at first sight. There are pictures of old and young people. There are lists of positive and negative words (for example “evil”,” laughing”). All you have to do is to assign the faces and the words to one of two categories as they are presented to you as quickly as you can. The categories are the problem. They are defined as a combination of young or old and good or bad. All permutations are used. Assigning an old face to a choice between old/good or young/ bad may be easy. When the category is old/ bad and young/ good it is more difficult. The computerized test measures how long it takes you to assign different words or faces. It assumes that the faster you can complete a task the easier it is for you. This in turn means a closer association in your mind between old and good or young and good etc.
They have now collect over 4.3m IAT results. Nearly a million of them are from the Ageist test. If you do the test it will be added to the total. The results seem to have predictive validity. Researchers have aggregated results into geographic groups by state or county in the USA. They have then be able to relate the IAT score to examples of discrimination. There have been strong relationships between “regional IAT scores” and discriminatory acts within those regions. They have predicted such things as gender gaps in maths tests and sexism. Racism has been related to the level of lethal use force used by the local police. Researchers suggest that the IAT’s tap in to the underlying “culture” of an area. At the individual level there is often little association between explicit and implicit attitudes.
There are four categories as output from the Age IAT: Automatic preference for young or old people and Slight Preference for young or old people. The stronger “automatic preferences” are exhibited by 30% each of the test population. Slight preference for Young People scores 17% and for the old 15%. I scored “slight preference for Young People over Old People”. Which is probably the case.
Long run trends in Implicit Attitudes
Can these communal implicit attitudes change. It seems that short run “shocks” can change the scores but that they then drift back to the norm. The naming of COVID as a “Chinese Flu” created anti-Asian sentiment. This showed up in the Implicit Database. After the initial “explosion” of sentiment the results drifted back to where they had been.
There is now enough data over a ten year period to look for long run trends. In the past decade “anti-gay”; “anti-black” and “anti-dark skin” sentiments have all become less extreme. Anti-gay bias has decreased by 33% over the period. If the trend continues this implicit anti-gay attitude will reach “neutrality” between 2025 and 2045. The changes are in all parts of the population. The results are consistent across men and women. Gay and non-gay, young and old and liberals and conservatives have all moved. The young liberal group has shown the largest tendency to move. "Race" and "Skin Tone" implicit discrimination have moved towards neutrality by 17% and 15% respectively. This has accelerated since 2012/13.
Negativity towards one group has been increasing. These are those that carry more weight. This in particularly the case between 2004 and 2010. It stands in opposition the explicit attitudes and advertising campaigns celebrating larger bodies.
The bad news is that negativity towards the elderly has shifted hardly at all in the last ten years. Implicit Ageism has declined by only 5% in that period. This may be due to the underlying causes. The social group theory explains all forms of discrimination. We all need to belong to a group and to believe that our group is superior to all others. That is even a potential source of implicit attitudes. Of course inside we all know that we will become part of “the old”. Ageism is more deeply rooted. The Terror Management Theory suggests that old people remind us too much of our futures. We need to avoid them and the easiest way to do that is to denigrate them.
The researchers predict that it will take a long time for ageism to fade. If the current trends continue it will be 100 years before ageism implicit attitudes reach “neutrality”.