Impact of stereotype threat on brain activity during memory tasks in older adults

Abstract: We report the first neuroimaging experiment to investigate the impact of explicitly activating aging stereotypes (i.e., stereotype threat) on brain activity during cognitive tasks. Cognitively normal older adults read about aging stereotypes or a control passage prior to taking episodic memory, working memory, and a non-demanding control task during fMRI. At the group level, stereotype activation did not impact cognitive performance or measures sensitive to stress and anxiety (physiological or self-report), but like prior work, highly educated and retired adults exhibited greater stereotype effects on episodic memory. At the neural level, stereotype activation did not impact brain activity in executive control or emotional regulation regions previously linked to stereotype threat effects in younger adults, suggesting that stereotype threat operates differently in older adults. Instead, on each task, the stereotype group showed more brain activity than the control group in parietal midline regions (e.g., precuneus, posterior cingulate). Although activity in these regions can arise from many processes, they have previously been associated with self-referential thinking and error-prevention focus, and in our study, brain activity in these regions was associated with slower responses and lower false alarm errors on the episodic memory task. Collectively, these findings are more consistent with the regulatory fit hypothesis than an executive control interference hypothesis of stereotype threat effects in older adults, whereby older adults adopt an error-prevention mindset in response to explicit stereotype threat.

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Chen, Y.-T., McDonough, I. M., Faig, K. E., Norman, G. J., & Gallo, D. A. (2022). Impact of stereotype threat on brain activity during memory tasks in older adults. NeuroImage, 119413.