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Research has found that where individuals are aware of the negative stereotypes against them, it negatively affects their self-perception and scores in performance tests. Steele and Aronson’s (1995) Stereotype Threat Theory suggests that implied or explicit inter-group comparison may impair performance if there is a threat of negative stereotype of the ability of the group. Furthermore, even the knowledge that a negative stereotype (‘stereotype threat’) exists towards an individual or group is sufficient for those individuals to feel a burden of suspicion and therefore to underperform, even if the stereotype is not believed (Steele, 1997). Levy (1996) showed that subliminally believed stereotypes of older people by older people lowered self-perception judgements and cognitive performance. This was supported by Abrams et al. (2006) who found that a high stereotype threat reduced the cognitive test performance of older age groups. This important research demonstrates that legal sanctions against discrimination are not enough, and that the underlying culture and attitudes within a workplace need to be addressed.

How can the effects of age stereotype be mitigated? It has been seen that where there had been previous contacts between groups which may otherwise have been subject to stereotype threat and prejudice (for example, older and younger people working together), this negative effect was moderated. Contact theory suggests that where we live and work with others who may be ‘different’ from us, we actually learn to value and respect those differences, so that contact between groups may reduce inter-group negative stereotypes (e.g. Allport, 1954; Pettigrew, 1998). This suggests that diverse organizations will tend to be more effective, flexible, and able to work internally and externally than non-diverse organizations. However, Rothbart and John (1985) found that in order for contact theory to help in reducing prejudice and stereotype, it was important that three criteria were met: that behaviours within the minority group were not consistent with their stereotype; that contact was relatively frequent and in a range of different social contexts; and that minority members were perceived as typical of their cultural group.

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