College students (N = 3,435) in 26 cultures reported their perceptions of age-related changes in physical, cognitive, and socioemotional areas of functioning and rated societal views of aging within their culture. There was widespread cross-cultural consensus regarding the expected direction of aging trajectories with (1) perceived declines in societal views of aging, physical attractiveness, the ability to perform everyday tasks, and new learning, (2) perceived increases in wisdom, knowledge, and received respect, and (3) perceived stability in family authority and life satisfaction. Cross-cultural variations in aging perceptions were associated with culture-level indicators of population aging, education levels, values, and national character stereotypes. These associations were stronger for societal views on aging and perceptions of socioemotional changes than for perceptions of physical and cognitive changes. A consideration of culture-level variables also suggested that previously reported differences in aging perceptions between Asian and Western countries may be related to differences in population structure.
Keywords: Aging, stereotypes, cross-cultural, values, national character stereotypes
Perceptions of aging influence societal behaviors and expectations towards older people (e.g. Pasupathi & Löckenhoff, 2002 ) as well as older adults’ well-being and coping with the aging process (e.g. Levy, 2003 ; Levy & Myers, 2004 ). The majority of studies in this field have focused on individual differences in perceptions of aging within (mostly Western) cultures, but there is growing evidence that views of aging may differ across cultures as well (e.g. Arnhoff, Leon, & Lorge, 1964 ; Giles et al. 2000 ). The present study extends previous research by comparing multiple aspects of aging perceptions across 26 cultures and examining their culture-level associates. To provide the background for this work, we review previous research on intercultural differences in perceptions of aging and discuss theoretical perspectives on the causes of such differences.
According to social representations theory (Moscovici, 1984. 1988 ) the views of aging held within a given culture are a form of shared cultural representation. They constitute systems of ideas, values, and customs related to aging that are treated by members of the society as if they were established reality. Perceptions of aging are multi-dimensional in nature (e.g. Hummert, 1990 ), encompass both positive and negative characteristics (e.g. Hummert, 1990 ; McTavish, 1971 ; Heckhausen, Dixon, & Baltes, 1989 ), and reflect a mix between accurate depictions of age-related changes and distorted views of older people (Kite, Stockdale, Whitley, & Johnson, 2005 ). Healthy aging is associated with predictable biological changes (Digiovanna, 2000 ) that lead to systematic age differences in physical abilities and cognitive performance (for reviews see Christiansen & Grzybowski, 1999 ; Salthouse & Davis, 2006 ). To the extent that aging perceptions reflect such biologically based differences in functioning, one might expect to see comparatively little variation across cultures. Age-related changes in socioemotional characteristics and social status, in contrast, appear to depend less on biology and more on motivational priorities (Fung, Rice, & Carstensen, 2005 ) and societal roles (Eagly, Wood, & Diekman, 2000 ). Perceptions of age related changes in these characteristics may therefore show a greater extent of cross-cultural variation.
Previous research has explored several potential explanations for intercultural differences in perceptions of aging. Early studies which focused on socioeconomic predictors found that higher levels of economic development and industrialization are associated with less favorable attitudes towards aging and a lower societal status of older adults (e.g. Simmons, 1945 ; Arnhoff, et al. 1964 ; Maxwell, 1970 ; Bengtson, Dowd, Smith, & Inkeles, 1975 ; Palmore & Manton, 1974 ). Modernization theory (Cowgill, 1972 ; 1986 ) explained such findings by arguing that a shift towards industrialized modes of production undermines the societal status of older adults, devalues their experience-based knowledge, breaks up traditional extended families through urbanization, and shifts control over the means of production from family elders to industrial entities (Cowgill, 1972 ). Although intuitively appealing, modernization theory has been criticized as an oversimplification (e.g. Quadagno, 1982 ). In particular, the theory ignores cross-cultural differences in values and belief systems that may shape the way in which a given culture responds to advanced socioeconomic development (Inglehart & Baker, 2000 ).
Research on the influence of cultural values and beliefs on aging attitudes has been dominated by comparisons between Eastern/Asian versus Western cultures (see Giles et al. 2003 for a review). This body of work was inspired by the idea that Asian societies are influenced by Confucian values of filial piety and the practice of ancestor worship which are thought to promote positive views of aging and high esteem for older adults (e.g. Davis, 1983 ; Sher, 1984 ; Ho, 1994 ; see Sung 2001 for a review). Western societies, in contrast, were thought to be youth-oriented and to hold more negative views about the aging process and the elderly (e.g. Palmore, 1975 ). Empirical evidence for the proposed East-West differences is scarce. Although some studies have found support for the notion that aging attitudes are more positive in Asian as compared to Western cultures (e.g. Levy & Langer, 1994 ; Tan, Zhang, & Fan, 2004 ), others report effects in the opposite direction (e.g. Giles et al. 2000 ; Zhou, 2007 ; Harwood et al. 2001 ; Sharps, Price-Sharps, & Hanson, 1998 ), or fail to find any marked cultural differences (e.g. Boduroglu, Yoon, Luo, & Park, 2006 ; Ryan, Jin, Anas, & Luh, 2004 ; Chappel, 2003 ; McCann, Cargile, Giles, & Bui, 2004 ).
In summary, there
is some evidence that both socioeconomic development and cultural values and beliefs may matter for cross-cultural differences in aging attitudes. However, findings are limited in several important aspects. For one, most previous studies included only small groups of countries. In fact, the vast majority of the literature consists of pairwise comparisons. Among the exceptions are one study that compared five countries (Harwood et al. 2001 ), four studies that each compared six countries (Arnhoff, Leon, & Lorge, 1964 ; Bengtson, Dowd, Smith, & Inkeles, 1975 ; Harwood et al. 1996; Giles et al. 2003 ) and one study that compared 11 countries (Giles et al. 2000 ). Conclusions that can be drawn from the previous literature are also limited because studies used a wide array of measures ranging from open-ended descriptions of older and younger adults (Bodoruglu et al. 2006), to macro-economic markers of older adults’ societal status (Palmore & Manton, 1974 ). This makes it difficult to integrate findings into a generalized cross-cultural pattern of aging attitudes. Moreover, cultural differences in values and beliefs are frequently inferred from broad classifications into Eastern versus Western countries (see Giles et al. 2000 ; 2003 for exceptions). This approach glosses over variations among individual Asian cultures, ignores cultures that cannot be classified as Eastern or Western, confounds cross-cultural differences in socioeconomic factors and value systems, and fails to pinpoint the specific aspects of cultural values that are most relevant in shaping perceptions of aging. Decades of cross-cultural research have yielded comprehensive data regarding culturally shared values (e.g. Hofstede, 1980 ; Schwartz, 1994 ; Leung & Bond, 2004 ; Inglehart & Norris, 2003 ; Smith, Dugan, & Trompenaars, 1996 ; House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman, & Gupta, 2004 ) and aggregate psychological characteristics (e.g. McCrae et al. 2005 ; Diener, Diener, & Diener, 1995 ) across a wide range of cultures. To date, this rich body of knowledge has not been adequately linked to cross-cultural differences in aging perceptions.
The present study extends previous research by examining perceptions of aging among college students from 26 different cultures in six continents. Participants rated their perceptions of age-related changes in physical, cognitive, and socioemotional characteristics and evaluated societal views about aging within their cultures. Because contact with a stereotyped group may influence perceptions of that group (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006 ) we also assessed participants’ frequency of contact with older adults.
Going beyond dichotomous comparisons between Eastern and Western cultures, we related ratings of aging perceptions obtained in the present study to culture-level scores of possible associates derived from previous work (see Hofstede, 2001 ; Leung & Bond, 2004 ; McCrae et al. 2005 for examples of this analytical approach). This allowed us to disentangle the relative influence of socioeconomic factors (i.e. wealth, population structure, and education levels) as compared to cultural values and beliefs.
To capture cultural differences in values, we adopted Hofstede’s (1980. 2001 ) dimensions and Schwartz’ (1994) seven value types which both cover a large range of cultures and have been cross-validated with alternative classification systems (e.g. Leung & Bond, 2004 ; Hofstede, 2001 ). We also included Inglehart and Norris’ (2003) dimensions of secular-rational versus traditional values and self expression versus survival values which are thought to capture systematic changes in value systems in response to modernizing influences (Inglehart & Baker, 2000 ). Finally, to examine culture-level associations between perceptions of aging and other forms of stereotypical beliefs, we included national character stereotypes (Terracciano et al. 2005 ) which capture people’s stereotypical perceptions of the personality traits of a ‘typical’ member of their culture.
In general, we predicted that perceptions about aspects of aging that are strongly linked to biological changes (i.e. physical aging and changes in fluid cognitive abilities) would show less variation across cultures and fewer associations with culture-level variables than perceptions of socioemotional aspects of aging (e.g. family relations and life satisfaction) and societal views of the aging process. For culture-level associations with socioeconomic characteristics, we expected to replicate previous research indicating that advanced development is associated with less favorable perceptions of aging. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to examine culture-level associations among values, national character stereotypes, and perceptions of aging. We therefore adopted an exploratory approach and did not postulate specific hypotheses regarding the direction of the effects. Also, given the equivocal research record on East-West differences (see above) we did not expect to find strong differences in aging perceptions between Asian and Western countries. Instead, we expected to find a more complex pattern such that East-West differences in aging perceptions are related to both socioeconomic factors and cultural values and beliefs.
Participants and Procedure
Questionnaires were administered to samples of college students from 26 cultures in six continents. Participants were informed about the general nature of the project and completed the questionnaires in a quiet environment, typically in a group setting. 1 All data were collected anonymously, and apart from age, gender, and citizenship status (native born citizen or not), no personal information was recorded. Thirty participants were excluded because they missed more than two items on the aging perception measures or failed to indicate their gender, leaving a total of 3,435 participants. The vast majority (94.4%) were native born citizens of their respective countries. The demographic composition of the samples is described in Table 1. On average, participants were in their early 20s and about two-thirds were female.