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I Think, and Therefore I Can:
How Our Expectations Influence the Way we Age

Corinna Lockenhoff
Psychology Department
Stanford University
June 2001

In my research I ask older people (average age 79) how much influence they think they have over their aging process. People who think they have a lot of influence report more positive feelings regarding aging than those who think they have less influence, and they also seem to be more persistent and treat difficulties as challenges rather than as threats. Based on my findings, I hope to develop informational programs that will help older people deal with aging-related challenges more effectively.

My research explores the concept of aging self-efficacy, which is defined as the belief in one's ability to successfully organize and execute behaviors that are necessary to influence the aging process. I focus on three main goals to develop a theoretically and empirically sound measure of aging self-efficacy; to execute experiments in which I present people with aging-related challenges; and to identify the sources of aging self-efficacy. Specifically, I will investigate how recent experiences and long-term developments influence aging self-efficacy.

In general, self-efficacy is defined as the belief in one's capabilities to successfully orchestrate the actions required to produce a given attainment (Bandura, 1977). Self-efficacy is domain specific, i.e. we have different perceptions of our self-efficacy in different areas of life (e.g. academic abilities, relationships, health, etc.). Self-efficacy beliefs are derived from several sources of information, including active performance accomplishments, observing the competent performance of others, and verbal persuasion through social partners. People with high self-efficacy beliefs in a certain area are more successful in that domain because they set more challenging goals for themselves and remain persistent in the face of failure and setbacks. Also, highly efficacious people do not view difficulties as threats, and challenges motivate them instead of defeat them. Self-efficacy is more than just optimism, however. Highly efficacious people do not deceive themselves about tough odds, but consider obstacles as surmountable and believe that they have what it takes to deal with them.

When approaching old age, people are increasingly likely to experience certain difficulties, such as chronic disease, cognitive and memory problems, the death of friends and relatives, and financial problems. Regardless of independent variables, such as health status or socioeconomic status, some older people are much more successful than others in dealing with aging-related challenges. Differences in aging self-efficacy can help to explain this discrepancy.

In developing a measure of aging self-efficacy, my goal is to identify the general areas or domains of life that people expect to be influenced by age. First, I made a list of specific abilities and skills that might be subject to change (e.g. muscular strength and memory for grocery lists). Next, I formulated questions to assess people's aging self-efficacy for each of these specific abilities on a seven-point scale. For example, the participants were asked the following question As you get older, how much influence will you have on your muscular strength? The answers ranged from 1 (cannot influence at all) to 7 (can influence completely).

Ninety-five people from a wide range of adult age groups completed this questionnaire. I used their answers to identify clusters of questions that were related to each other. I also chose questions that elicited a variety of responses, since such questions are more useful in differentiating among people. Based on this information, I selected 22 items that cover four general domains which seem to be highly relevant for successful aging resistance to disease, maintenance of physical strength and agility, emotional balance, and memory.

To examine older people's reactions to aging-related challenges, I showed the participants positive and negative media images of older adults. Negative depictions of older people were expected to remind the participants of the aging-related losses and difficulties ahead of them, whereas positive images did not present such a challenge. Fifty-four older adults (average age 79 years) volunteered to participate. First, I asked them to complete the aging self-efficacy measure. Next, one group of participants saw 15 positive aging-related media images (e.g. older people riding bicycles), another group saw 15 negative media images (e.g. older people in wheelchairs), and a control group saw neutral images (e.g. a chair, a bottle, etc.). Afterwards, I asked participants how they felt and had them complete a memory test. Overall, people felt sadder after seeing the negative photos than after seeing the positive ones, which is not very surprising. However, people also felt more proud after seeing the negative photos than after seeing the positive or neutral ones. This could be explained by comparing people with high and low aging self-efficacy. After seeing the negative images, people with high aging self-efficacy experienced significantly more positive emotions than people with low aging self-efficacy. Thus, highly efficacious people almost seemed to enjoy the challenge posed by the negative descriptions of their peers. People with high and low aging self-efficacy did not differ from each other after seeing neutral or positive images. Thus, differences in aging self-efficacy only became relevant if the participants were faced with a challenge in the form of negative stereotypes about their age group.

But perhaps negative media images of aging do not really present an aging-relevant challenge, and people might have just reacted to the general emotional tone of the photos. If the older participants were in fact reacting to an aging-relevant challenge, then the same media images should not influence younger adults, since aging is not a current issue for them. I replicated the same study with younger adults (average age 19 years) and found no differences between the high and low self-efficacy groups. This suggests that older adults were in fact reacting to the aging-related challenge imposed by a negative description of their peers.

In order to identify sources of aging self-efficacy, people who completed a questionnaire about their health and exercise habits ten years ago will complete the same questionnaire a second time. I expect to find relations between current aging self-efficacy and past and current exercise habits. During exercise, people experience how they can actively influence their physical status, which should increase their aging-related self-efficacy. I also expect relations between aging efficacy and changes in health status over the 10-year period. Declining health should decrease aging self-efficacy, whereas improved health status should be related to higher aging efficacy. However, I do not expect a relation between the overall level of health status and aging efficacy beliefs. Only changes in health status should influence how people perceive their aging process.

In the long run, I hope to design an informational program that will help people to increase their aging self-efficacy and deal with aging-related challenges more effectively. This program will include activities that illustrate the malleability of the aging process. For example, participants will experience how age-related loss in muscular strength can be reversed through exercise. Furthermore, the program will include information about different ways to influence the aging process, from dietary changes to memory training. Small groups of people will participate in the program together, and thus the success of each individual participant can serve as a model for the other group members.