What we ask Google most frequently can easily be discovered by seeing how the search engine autofills the beginning of a statement or question we’ve typed in. These top results are also, then, a snapshot of what other inquiring minds privately think of the subject that’s just been raised.
In 2013, social scientists from the Centre for the Study of Group Processes at the University of Kent in the UK explored a specific collective bias by typing “old people should” into the search bar.
“Old people should not drive,” read the top result. And, more disconcertingly, the second most popular was: “Old people should die.” These troubling findings indicate our society’s indictment of the elderly. But also, on a deeper level, they’re a reflection of our views on the ageing process itself. The cultural message that has clearly been swallowed hook, line and sinker: Be afraid, be very afraid, of getting old.
As other researchers have found, there’s a karmic irony at the centre of this kind of thinking. Holding negative opinions of ageing, they’ve concluded, makes people age more quickly.
Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale’s School of Public Health, has found again and again that subjects who hold the most negative view of ageing—or who have assimilated pessimistic stereotypes of the elderly—pay for that bias on a physical level.
Levy has been exploring the topic for the last 20 years. In 2002, her most well-known study examined data collected in the mid-1970s from the town of Oxford, Ohio, USA. Residents over 50 were asked to respond to statements about ageing. “As you get older, you are less useful” (yes or no); “As I get older, things are (better, worse or the same) as I thought they would be.”
When Levy evaluated the mortality data from study subjects, she made a startling discovery: Those with the most negative views of ageing died, on average, 7.6 years younger than those with the most positive ones. In fact, she found that being ageist influenced lifespan more than gender, incidence of loneliness or amount of exercise.
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