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Positive thinking 'can aid memory'

Published on 01 July 2013 11:30 AM

The benefits of positive thinking in later life have been reinforced by a new study - especially when it comes to memory.

Blaming every forgetful moment on getting older can actually worsen memory difficulties, says the new report, which is published in the Journal of Psychological Science.

Known as the 'stereotype threat', it means someone challenged with negative comments about their group can self-handicap and under-perform - unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

Researcher Sarah Barber, of the University of Southern California, said that this stereotype threat can instead be turned on its head - and used to an advantage.

Combating the stereotype

Two tests were carried out on people from the ages of 59 to 79 as part of a memory experiment.

Some adults were first asked to read fake news articles about research confirming memory loss in older people, while others read fake articles about memory preservation and improvement in later life.

For both groups, half of them earned a financial reward for each word they remembered; the other half lost money for every word they forgot.

For people who had something to gain, being confronted with age stereotypes meant a worse performance on memory tests.

They scored around a fifth worse than adults who were not exposed to the stereotype.

But when the test was couched in terms of stopping losses due to forgetting, the results overturned: participants reminded of the stereotypes about ageing and memory loss scored better than those who were under no stereotype preconception.

'Assuming we're forgetful because of our age can make our memory worse'

Ms Barber said that stereotype threat is thought to be a bad thing, and it is well known that it can impair the memory performance of older adults.

But she added: 'Our experiments demonstrate that stereotype threat can actually enhance older adults' memory if the task involves avoiding losses.'

She said that by concentrating on not making mistakes, older adults could enhance their memory.

So while it is true that cognitive processes decline as we get older, reinforcing the idea that we are forgetful because of our age can make the problem worse (unless we are rewarded for avoiding memory loss, in which case it improves our performance).

Copyright Press Association 2013

Last updated: Oct 06 2017

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