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Cling to Youthful Appearance, Annoy Actual Youth

Forty may be the new 30, but young people don’t take kindly to elders trying to pass for their peers.
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Have you dyed your hair lately? Had some wrinkles removed with a Botox injection? Perhaps considered plastic surgery?

If so, it’s certainly understandable. Our youth-oriented society has, at best, an ambivalent attitude toward advanced age. If you’re seeking either a job or a mate, it makes intuitive sense to look as young and vibrant as possible.

But newly published research suggests this approach can backfire. University of Kansas psychologists Alexander Schoemann and Nyla Branscombe report older adults who attempt to look youthful “are disliked, and face disapproval, from young adults.”

“Individuals who attempt to look young are spending billions of dollars to conform to existing standards and escape the prejudice and discrimination directed toward older adults,” they write in the European Journal of Social Psychology. “However, our experiments demonstrate that attempting to look younger can have both monetary and social costs.”

In the first of their three experiments, 94 university students (median age 19) were assigned to read a short paragraph about a woman in her 50s. She was described as a successful shop owner who is single and has many friends.

Half the participants went on to read that “she dresses and acts much younger than her friends,” and is extremely interested in plastic surgery and “age-defying drugs and cosmetics.” The other half learned that she acts and dresses in a similar manner as her friends, and “has never been particularly interested in looking or dressing younger.”

They then assessed the women by answering a series of questions, which measured likability, deceitfulness and attractiveness. Interestingly, “there was no difference in perceived attractiveness” of the two women. But the one who was attempting to pass for younger was seen as less likeable and more deceitful than the woman who was comfortable in her own (at least moderately wrinkled) skin.

A second study repeated the first using a male subject as well as a female one; it produced the same results as the first, regardless of the person’s gender. A third study varied the age of the woman in question, with half the young participants (median age 20) informed she was in her 30s, while the others were told she was in her 60s.

“When the target was younger, she was seen as conforming to social pressure,” the researchers write, “whereas when the target was older, she was seen as attempting to avoid discrimination.” An important distinction but one that apparently didn’t elicit much empathy: “Endorsement of either attribution resulted in the target being disliked.”

Why the harsh responses?

“We found evidence in support of the idea that older adults who attempt to pass [for young] represent a threat to young adults’ social identities,” Schoemann and Branscombe write. “Young adults responded to this threat by disparaging [them].”

The researchers note that, in the third experiment, the woman in her 30s was evaluated more negatively than the one in her 60s. They note she was trying to pass for someone in her 20s and thus represented a more immediate threat to the participants’ group identity.

The study participants responded to written descriptions of the older adults, and the researchers concede they might have responded differently if they had “visual exposure” to the people they were evaluating.

That said, if you’re interviewing for a position, and the boss is younger than you, note that any attempts you make to appear youthful might mark you as an imposter and even something of a threat. All in all, the wisest approach might be to simply look your age.