Research — 23 October 2014

A new study discovers positive subliminal messages that flip negative stereotypes of aging can improve physical functioning among the elderly.

Yale School of Public Health researchers say the novel intervention method was designed to examine whether exposure to positive age stereotypes could weaken negative age stereotypes.

Researchers also used the study design to ascertain if the new benefits could lead to healthier outcomes.

Investigators discovered older individuals who were subliminally exposed to positive stereotypes about aging showed improved physical functioning that lasted for several weeks.

The study, to be published online in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, consisted of 100 older individuals (average age 81 years) who live in the greater New Haven, Connecticut area.

Some of the participants were subjected to positive age stereotypes on a computer screen that flashed words such as “spry” and “creative” at speeds that were too fast to allow for conscious awareness.ipad-388129_1280

Individuals exposed to the positive messaging exhibited a range of psychological and physical improvements that were not found in control subjects.

They benefited from improved physical function, such as physical balance, which continued for three weeks after the intervention ended.

Also, during the same period, positive age stereotypes and positive self-perceptions of aging were strengthened, and negative age stereotypes and negative self-perceptions of aging were weakened.

“The challenge we had in this study was to enable the participants to overcome the negative age stereotypes which they acquire from society, as in everyday conversations and television comedies,” said lead researcher Becca Levy, Ph.D.

“The study’s successful outcome suggests the potential of directing subliminal processes toward the enhancement of physical function.”

While it has been previously shown by Levy that negative age stereotypes can weaken an older individual’s physical functioning, this is the first time that subliminal activation of positive age stereotypes was found to improve outcomes over time.

The study found that the intervention influenced physical function through a cascade of positive effects.

Researchers believe the intervention strengthened the subjects’ positive age stereotypes, which then strengthened their positive self-perceptions, which then improved their physical function.

Investigators found the subliminal messages lead to improvements in physical function that surpassed a previous study that involved a six-month-exercise intervention’s effect.

This article first appeared on ‘Psych Central’ on 21 October 2014.

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