The Roots of Stigma

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

Sometimes research studies in psychology don’t seem to have anything to do with real life. Others – like the one I read about in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences – are right on target when it comes to illuminating everyday psychosocial phenomena.

The study’s authors, Anne C. Krendl and George Wolford from Indiana University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, explored the way older adults thought about stigmatized individuals while they experienced their own decline in thinking and daily functioning. Past research has indicated that older adults show more negative bias toward stigmatized individuals (who may be experiencing a variety of disabilities and disadvantaged circumstances), and the researchers had a theory as to why. Basically, Krendl and Wolford wondered whether older adults held others more accountable for their conditions than younger adults did.


They tested their theory on 90 older adults and 44 younger adults. Interestingly, their hypothesis was supported: the older adults seemed to believe the stigmatized individuals had more control over their conditions and that the conditions were more changeable compared to how the younger adults perceived the stigmatized group.

I suppose this makes sense to me; older adults are more likely to embrace the idea of rugged individualism and the need to “pull up your bootstraps” and make the best of a situation. But I’m nagged by the feeling that there’s more to this. Why do older adults really choose to hold others more accountable? What are the roots of negative bias toward those who are down and out?

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Two psychological concepts come to mind:

Fear. Isn’t it true that we tend to condemn what we fear or what we don’t understand (which are often the same thing)? Older adults may already be thinking more about aging and the possibilities of illness, disability, and the loss of independence. When they see other stigmatized individuals experiencing medical and functional problems, it may invoke fear that these fates await them too. The knee-jerk reaction could be a negative perception of stigmatized people as lazy or responsible for their own plight.

Projection. The older adults in this study were already starting to experience decline in their thinking and daily functioning. They may have been wondering if they were in some way, or to some degree, to blame for their current circumstances. They may have felt regrets over past choices that took a toll on their physical or emotional well-being. In other words, they may have felt downright guilty about what is happening to them now.

One way to deal with uncomfortable emotions like guilt is to project them onto other people so that they are transferred from self to other. I’m wondering if older adults are doing just that when they exhibit negative bias toward other stigmatized individuals. After all, it’s a lot easier to feel angry or disdainful toward someone else than toward oneself.

If this is what’s really happening, my heart goes out even more to older adults who are struggling with decline. We need targeted interventions to help older people effectively deal with difficult emotions and life changes while still cultivating compassion for others who are also struggling.


Krendl, A. C., & Wolford, G. (2012). Cognitive decline and older adults’ perception of stigma controllability. Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. Advance online access — doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbs070.

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