How ageism is inbuilt - research explains our own-age bias

Ageism isn’t anything new, but now we may have a few more clues as to why we have age biases.

Young people may automatically prefer the company of people their own age, as opposed to those who are older. Flinders University researchers have found that our perception of a person’s age and appearance change how we respond to them. Our ‘own-age’ social bias is a process determined by neuronal processes on a low level.

We are still socially conditioned for biases, but there appears to be a subconscious response even to an ambiguous face or figure, researcher and psychology professor Mike Nicholls said. Nicholls said this explains why we would hang around with people our own age when we are young, but old and young when we are older. This creates a difficulty in the workplace, as young people will choose young people out of an inbuilt preferencing system that they are not aware of.

The study was conducted in the United States on adults aged 18 and over and a sample study in another country were shown an image of an ambiguous figure of a woman (the old-young illusion), which can look either old or young depending on what you look at, and asked to accurately guess her age.

Older and younger participants estimated the age as nearer their own. The abstract explains the conclusion of the study as:

“This own-age effect ties in with socio-cultural practices, which are less inclusive towards the elderly.

“The results therefore demonstrate that high-level social group processes have a subconscious effect on the early stages of face processing.“

What this means is that to overcome this unconscious bias, training would be required to overcome it.

 ‘Perception of an ambiguous figure is affected by own-age social biases,’ (2018) by MER Nicholls, O Churches (Flinders University and T Loetscher (University of SA) has been published in Scientific Reports (Nature Publishing Company) Volume 8, Issue 1, 1 December 2018, Article number 12661.