Most of us are familiar with this optical illusion in which you see either a young woman or an old one, but not both at the same time.  The younger you are, the more likely you are to see the young woman first, but the fact is most of us have a bias toward youth. The book Blindspot (highly recommended) says 80% of Americans more strongly associate “young-good” than “old-good.”

These days, at age 58, I am definitely closer to the old woman than to the young one. I recently stopped bleaching my hair and now it is a nice natural shade of steel gray (ok, I’ve added pink and gray wool dreadlock extensions so not completely natural!). I am open about my age, don’t wear any makeup and generally try to be age-positive. I am the co-host of a podcast about pre-retirement planning where we interview a 50- or 60-year-old every week about topics related to healthy aging. 

When I recently learned about the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) for ageism that measures the strength of associations between Old people and Young people and evaluations (good, bad), I knew I had to take it.

The IATs look at how the unconscious mind influences our actions. The scientists who created the IATs say that “whether we want them to or not, the attitudes of the culture at large infiltrate us.” Consciously, we may think we aren’t biased in favor of youth, but because our unconscious minds make decisions more quickly than we can notice, we may act out in ways that favor youth, for instance in job interviews.

Most people implicitly prefer Young people to Old people
(from Implicit.harvard.edu)

Notably, more than 40% of the people included in the graph above self-report having no preference between the two age categories. Even more interestingly, the IATs reveal that we older people show the biggest disparities between our self-reported favorable attitudes toward the elderly and the unconscious associations revealed by our IATs.

How is it possible to be biased against yourself?  Many of us reconcile being chronologically old and yet maintaining a preference for the young by simply not applying the label “elderly” to ourselves! If you’ve ever said to yourself “Inside I still feel like the same person I was when I was in my 20s” you’ve been working this ageism magic on yourself. 

When my Ageism IAT results came back I was gratified to see I showed no automatic preference between young and old people.  But I’m definitely not going to sit back and believe I’ve got no more work to do on myself in this regard.  I am painfully reminded of a time about 20 years ago when I passed up an older job applicant for someone younger even though the older person was clearly more qualified. When I told a friend of the decision, she chided me, but I defended my decision by saying the older person lacked energy and had some obvious health problems.

The exchange with my friend made me realize I had discriminated unfairly against the older candidate.  I felt like a bad person, which is why I worked to justify my decision. According to researcher Dolly Chugh (The Person you Mean to Be:  How good people fight bias) most of us want to be seen as “good people” morally and none of us want to be shamed or labeled as “bad people.”  This either-or way of classifying people means there is no room for growth, because if we admit we need to change that implies we weren’t “good” in the first place. She suggests one way to get into a learning mindset is to start to see ourselves and others as “Goodish people.”

Here are some of the ways Chugh says we can begin to work on changing our unconscious biases:

  1. Do an audit of your media diet (Linked In, books, movies, tv shows, newspapers).  Whose voices are represented? Are you only connecting to people who look like you? I for one have been really pleased to see more television shows not only starring older actors but showing them dealing with issues faced by older people.  Two of my favorites right now are “Grace and Frankie” and “The Kominsky Method.”  I wonder how many young people watch these programs?
  2. Constructively engage others who demonstrate ageism using the 20-60-20 rule.  20% of the people will be ready to confront their own ageism with little persuasion.  20% are really uncomfortable and will strongly deny they are ageist; don’t focus on changing these people’s minds, try to get them to understand that from a norms standpoint ageism is not OK.  The remaining 60% are simply unconscious about their ageism.  They will be moved more by personal stories than by statistics. 
  3. Learn some practical ways to combat your own ageism.  A good place to start would be to read the book “This Chair Rocks:  A manifesto against ageism” by Ashton Applewhite.

I am so glad my friend called me out on the obvious ageism I displayed in rejecting an otherwise qualified job applicant because of her age.  Luckily, my first choice for the job turned it down and I immediately offered the position to the older candidate—something I’m not sure I would have done had my bias not been pointed out to me.  She turned out to be one of the best employees I ever had. I learned so much from her and she remains a friend to this day. My first lesson in confronting my own ageism.

In the optical illusion the young and the old woman are forever locked in their mutually exclusive age categories.  It seems most of us are similarly stuck with the limited choice of seeing ourselves as either young or old. Where is the in between?  Maybe if we thought of ourselves as “oldish” and “youngish” it would become easier to see our biases for what they are: illusions that own us only if we do not examine them and bring them out into the open.  

Share a time when you displayed ageism in the comments so we can all begin our journey to be just a little less ageist.