Exposure to positive depictions of aging results in improved physical function in older people, according to a new study from the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, CT.

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Participants who were exposed to the positive messages exhibited improved physical balance for up to 3 weeks and reported stronger self-perceptions of aging.

Previously, the researchers behind the new study – which is published in the journal Psychological Science – had shown that negative age stereotypes can have a weakening effect on the physical functioning of older people.

However, this is the first time that physical function has been shown to be improved by exposure to positive stereotypes.

To see whether exposure to positive age stereotypes could successfully weaken the effects of negative age stereotypes, the Yale team developed a unique intervention method.

The team recruited 100 seniors, with an average age of 81, from the New Haven area. Seated in front of a computer screen, a random selection of the study participants were exposed to words that flashed across the screen at speeds too fast to be consciously detected.

These words were subliminal positive messages, such as “spry” and “creative.” The researchers report that the subjects who were exposed to these subliminal messages displayed a variety of improved physical and psychological outcomes.

For example, these participants exhibited improved physical balance, which continued for up to 3 weeks after the intervention. The participants exposed to the positive messages also reported stronger self-perceptions of aging.

Becca Levy, associate professor and director of the Social and Behavioral Science Division at Yale, describes the study:

The challenge we had in this study was to enable the participants to overcome the negative age stereotypes which they acquire from society, as in everyday conversations and television comedies.

The study’s successful outcome suggests the potential of directing subliminal processes toward the enhancement of physical function.”

Levy and her colleagues conclude that the intervention worked by initiating a cascade effect of benefits. Firstly, the participants’ positive age stereotypes were strengthened, which reinforced their positive self-perceptions, which then improved their physical function.

In contrast to the new study, previous research funded by the Wellcome Trust and conducted by University College London (UCL) in the UK found that subliminal messaging is most effective when the conveyed message is negative.

Publishing their findings in the journal Emotion, the UCL team – much like the Yale researchers – flashed words on a computer screen before their subjects at a near-undetectable rate of a 50th of a second. However, as well as positive words (such as “cheerful,” “flower” and “peace”), there were also negative words (such as “agony,” “despair” and “murder”).

The participants were asked to decide whether the words were “neutral” or “emotional,” and rate how confident they were in their decision.

The researchers reported that the participants answered most accurately when responding to negative words, even when the participants believed themselves to be simply guessing the answer.

“Negative words may have more of a rapid impact,” said study lead Prof. Nilli Lavie. “‘Kill your speed’ should be more noticeable than ‘Slow down.'”

“Clearly, there are evolutionary advantages to responding rapidly to emotional information,” Lavie added. “We can’t wait for our consciousness to kick in if we see someone running towards us with a knife or if we drive under rainy or foggy weather conditions and see a sign warning ‘Danger.'”