Ageism. Causes and ways to reduce age prejudice in relation to Social Identity Theory and the Contact Hypothesis

Term Paper, 2021

22 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Discrimination and Ageism

3. Presentation of the Theories
3.1 Social Identity Theory
3.2 Contact Hypothesis

4. Ageism in contemporary Research
4.1 Why do I dread looking old? A test of Social Identity Theory, Terror Management Theory, and the double standard of aging
4.2 Study Contact Hypothesis Predicting Trainee Ageism Using Knowledge, Anxiety, Compassion, and Contact with Older Adults.
4.3 Contact quality and attitudes toward the elderly

5. Strategies for Action

6. Reflection



In this term paper, age discrimination is analyzed in terms of Social Identity Theory and the Contact Hypothesis. The aim was to explain essential aspects and to provide a rough, general overview of the topic, since age discrimination is less researched and present than other forms of discrimination. In a first step, the terms discrimination and age discrimination were defined. It was then determined that the causes of age discrimination could be explained by Social Identity Theory, and with the help of the Contact Hypothesis, ways were found to reduce negative attitudes towards older people. On this basis, recommendations and strategies for action were developed to reduce age prejudice and thus minimize age discrimination.

1. Introduction

Age discrimination is the most common form of discrimination. There is a possibility that anyone can be affected by it once they reach a certain age. Despite this, comparatively very little has been said or researched about age discrimination. Due to medical advances and improvements in living standards and health care, people are living longer and are therefore more likely to be affected by age discrimination. Age attributions are found in a wide variety of areas of life: in employment, health care, or public life, as well as in perceptions, behaviors, and cultural values - often with negative consequences for individuals and for society as a whole. Many people equate being old with a decline in physical strength and mental abilities, and this often leads to discrimination. Given the prevalence of ageism, the fact that ageism is often not even perceived by those affected and the reasons for prejudice against older people are scarcely researched, it is even more important to draw attention to this issue and to raise people's awareness. For this reason, I devote this paper to age discrimination, its causes, and ways to reduce age prejudice. I focus on ageism against older people, because age prejudice and negative attitudes can affect young people as well as older people, but this would go beyond the scope of this paper. Moreover, the effects of age discrimination against older people are more consequential and thus more important to explain.

For this purpose, discrimination and ageism will be defined and explained in a first part to lay a theoretical foundation. After that, the Social Identity Theory will be defined, as it can explain part of the causes of age discrimination. After that, the Contact Theory is used to show ways to reduce prejudice and change attitudes. These two theories are then illustrated with three different studies. After this, possible actions and strategies to reduce age discrimination are mentioned. Finally, the work is reflected upon, and further research avenues are presented.

2. Discrimination and Ageism

To understand age discrimination, it is important to first look at the term discrimination in general and understand its meaning. The semantic meaning of discrimination is derived from the Latin ‘discriminare' and means to separate, segregate, or distinguish (Kluge, 2002). From a scientific point of view, this term is used to represent differences. In sociology, as well as in jurisprudence, the meaning of unfair disadvantage or unequal treatment of persons or groups, based on their characteristics, such as age, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, has become established (What is discrimination?, 2021). Discrimination can take the form of avoidance of contact, disadvantage, belittlement, or insult. The term discrimination refers to both the process and the result (IDA-NRW, Glossary). The manifestations of discrimination are manifold, so it can happen consciously or unconsciously, directly, or indirectly, and every day or structurally. Discrimination is a phenomenon that is subject to complex influences. Individual advantages are not always the motive for discriminatory behavior, because unequal treatment can also result from legal requirements and regulations or institutional mechanisms. This form of discrimination is usually not based on the intention of the discriminating person. Often, such unequal treatment is not directly visible or measurable (Rheims, 2001).

Age discrimination can apply to any age group, but this paper will focus only on age discrimination against older adults. Levy and Bunji (2002) define ageism as the change in feeling, belief, or behavior in response to perceived chronological ages of a person or group, respectively, without conscious awareness, control, or intent to inflict harm. Ageism is manifested in negative age images, stereotypes, prejudices, or generalizations. It may manifest itself in language use, such as insults or threats. In this context, compared to insults based on ethnicity or gender, insults against elders are not sanctioned and appear to be largely socially tolerated (Williams & Giles, 1998). The structural age discrimination that this fosters is defined in terms of age-limiting rules, regulations, or criteria. This can be found in the labor market, for example, when older people are excluded by looking only for reinforcements for a “young dynamic team” in the job advertisement. Social values further reinforce ageism in that beauty is often equated with youthfulness, especially by Western societies and the media (Kite, 2005). Older people are considered less attractive, less competent, and are judged more stereotypically and negatively than the younger population (Kite, Stockdale, Whitley, & Johnson, 2005). The older the person gets, the more negative stereotypes they are exposed to, the more age prejudice affects them, and the more positive age stereotypes decrease (Hummert, 1990).

To understand the causes of ageism, three different approaches need to be considered. First, Snyder and Miene (1994) defined the functional approach, which states that age prejudice serves a cognitive and psychodynamic (motivational) function. From a cognitive perspective, age prejudice does not differ from prejudice toward other social groups. All prejudices and stereotypes help in dealing with the limitations of the human cognitive system. The complexity of the social stimulus world is reduced by categorizations of it. The characteristics and behaviors that are expected of the person based on the first impression are also directly attributed to the person. From a motivational perspective, age prejudice protects the self from the threatening nature of aging. The older population is a symbol of the undesirable change that represents the loss of one's well-being, but to which each of us is exposed. Therefore, to preserve the self-image, younger people attribute the changes that accompany the aging process not to aging, but to the elderly. They are blamed for the deficits associated with aging themselves (Snyder & Miene, 1994). In 2006, Mary Kite put forward the theory of social roles, which gives the second perspective. According to this theory, age biases are linked to the roles that older people have in society. Observations of older people's understanding of their roles determine the perceptions and attitudes of the younger population, and they associate these with the characteristics of the older person who holds that role. Thus, characteristics of the role are confused with characteristics of the person (Kite, 2006). A third perspective on the cause of ageism is Social Identity Theory. According to this theory, age prejudice is attitudes toward a social group to which one feels a sense of belonging (ingroup) or not (outgroup), depending on one's age. To fulfill the desire for a positive social identity, the ingroup is valorized, and the outgroup is devalued (see Social Identity Theory in section 2.1). Young people value their group as better, and age biases are created to maintain a positive social identity. Studies have found that older people share young people's negative attitudes toward older people (Krings, 2004). Older people often perceive themselves as the exception and do not identify with the older group, but with the younger to achieve a positive social identity by emphasizing otherness (Hummert, Garstka, O'Brien, Greenwald & Mellot, 2002).

The prevalence of ageism is difficult to measure because little research on ageism has been conducted, and there is a high rate of unreported cases because those affected rarely perceive the discrimination or perceive it as normal. A 2015 population-representative survey by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency found that age discrimination is widespread. For example, 15 percent of respondents said they had been discriminated against based on age in the past 2 years. In a survey of civil society organizations also by the Anti-Discrimination Agency in 2012, most of them (72%) assume a significant number of unreported cases of age discrimination. Personal inhibitions by those affected are seen as the main reason for this. In addition, discrimination is all too often experienced as normal (43%) or those affected assume that they cannot be helped anyway (ADS 2012). Older people frequently report experiencing discrimination when looking for a job and in the application process, especially for re-entering the workforce. Age discrimination also occurs in everyday life and because of the constant changes in society. For example, older people may encounter practical barriers due to advancing digitalization (ADS, 2015). Ageism also has severe consequences in care. For example, it can affect the type and quality of care provided to older people, delaying, or preventing treatments (Eshbaugh, Gross, & Satrom, 2010; Stewart et al., 2005). Because of constant negative contact with older people in the caring professions, stereotypes may be reinforced or even exacerbated (Revenson, 1989).


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Ageism. Causes and ways to reduce age prejudice in relation to Social Identity Theory and the Contact Hypothesis
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ISBN (Book)
Ageism, social identity, contact hypothesis, age prejudice
Quote paper
Lara Kamprath (Author), 2021, Ageism. Causes and ways to reduce age prejudice in relation to Social Identity Theory and the Contact Hypothesis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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