Can the real ageist please stand up?


The election of Trump, the annual Dutch debate about Zwarte Piet, and recent racist media portrayals of Sylvana Simons have placed the topic of stereotypes and discrimination high on the news agenda. In the past weeks, the Dutch media have extensively debated and highlighted the current threat of increased discrimination as well as the need to halt those that are responsible for spreading it.

The question who is guilty of stereotyping or discrimination seems to be difficult to answer. Personal allegations of discrimination in the media are often met with strong denial and fierce opposition, as not many of us desire the reputation of being a racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist or an otherwise narrow-minded bigot.

Such media blame games seem to suggest that – with the exception of some ignorant people - most of us are not guilty of stereotyping and discrimination.

The reality, however, is somewhat more complex. We all have pictures in our head about groups in society - some positive, some negative. These images are created by our experiences, conversations, and media portrayals. They don’t have to be accurate, but they help us to make sense of the world around us, and the people in it. Yet, when these pictures are based on inaccurate information, they can function as persuasive stereotypes, and blur our capacity to make the right – and the fair – judgment.

Because most of us desire to be open-minded personalities, we have a hard time admitting that sometimes we are biased – if we are aware of it, to begin with. It, therefore, does not make a lot of sense to ask people how biased they are, because you are not likely to get an honest or informed answer anyway. To circumvent this problem, scientists have come up with an implicit way of measuring stereotypes, based on the speed with which individuals can categorize clusters of images and words. Here you can find out more about your own implicit beliefs.

In a recently published article, these measures were used to see whether media portrayals can trigger implicit stereotypes about older workers. Age is the most common ground for perceived discrimination in the Netherlands. Older workers generally receive both positive and negative stereotypes: people tend to think older workers are reliable and trustworthy colleagues (i.e., high on warmth), but at the same time not so productive and fast (i.e., low on competence). The experiment showed that when news media portray older workers in congruence with these stereotypes, people’s implicit warmth and incompetence stereotypes become activated, and subsequently impact individuals’ intention to hire an older worker.

The study shows that news media can activate implicit stereotypes – and that this may occur without us even knowing. These activated implicit stereotypes, however, have the capacity to color our judgments. It is important to note that the activation of stereotypes does not necessary lead to discrimination. Fortunately - we can reflect on our beliefs and decide whether or not to act upon them.

We can learn from this study that all of us are susceptible to developing biased thoughts – as these processes occur partly on an implicit level and are shaped by the media environment surrounding us. By acknowledging this, and by reflecting on the accuracy of commonly held beliefs about social groups, the media debate about stereotypes and discrimination might move a step forward.

About the author Anne Kroon is a PhD Candidate at the University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam School of Communication Research at the department of Corporate Communication. Her research focuses on the antecedents and consequences of media stereotypes and frames.

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