Student News

Ethical considerations for researchers working with older adults

Keeping these ethical issues in mind when working with older adults is important.

By Jennifer Bellingtier, PhD, and Neika Sharifian, MS

Researchers working with older adults may face ethical dilemmas that they have not been trained or prepared to handle. Those new to the field may be unaware of the unique characteristics, ethical implications and responsibilities of working with an aging population. As the start of the fall semester brings new members to your labs, we consider three such issues and offer recommendations for addressing them.

Elder Abuse

Researchers may encounter cases of suspected elder abuse. Elder abuse involves intentional and negligent acts by caregivers and others that can cause harm or put older adults at risk for harm. It is estimated that only one in 14 cases of elder abuse are reported to social service agencies (Life span of Greater Rochester, 2011), despite significantly increased risk of overall mortality for those abused (Dong et al., 2009).

Researchers should make themselves aware of any institutional, local or state laws requiring mandatory reporting. In cases where mandatory reporting is not required, researchers may be concerned about potential ethical violations when reporting such incidents. We encourage labs to establish procedures for actively handling suspected cases of abuse (resources are available from the National Center on Elder Abuse). Reporting cases of elder abuse is supported by the Elder Justice Act (2003) and the Elder Abuse Victims Act (2013).


Ageism refers to negative attitudes based on age, including negative feelings, age-based stereotypes and discrimination. Ageism may be especially likely to impact research design when researchers are unfamiliar with older populations. K. Warner Schaie noted that “The increased interest and funding in this area has brought in a number of researchers with little previous experience in research on human aging, whose language behavior may be unduly influenced by societal stereotypes rather than by the relevant psychological literature,” (Schaie, 1993, p. 49). He noted a series of ageist assumptions that researchers should watch out for including:

  • Assuming data from different populations will generalize to older adults.
  • Assuming measures normed on young adults carry equal meaning for older adults.
  • Assuming chronological age is always a relevant variable.
  • Treating age as an explanatory variable.
  • Assuming older adults will only show declines.
  • The unintentional use of ageist language.

Although experienced aging researchers may be unlikely to make these ageist assumptions, they still bear keeping in mind as new cohorts of students and assistants join your lab. Providing training to incoming students can help. Assigning short readings (e.g., Schaie, 1993; McGuire, 2009) or videos (e.g., “The Myths and Realities of Aging” from PBS) prior to leading a discussion about aging can better prepare researchers to work with older adults and reduce ageist attitudes (Ragan & Bowen, 2001). Reviewing these topics can help all of us to think critically when we ask questions related to aging.

Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat refers to the situational pressure and distress that a person experiences when they feel at risk of conforming to a negative stereotype about their social group (Steel & Aronson, 1995). Older adults are often subjected to negative stereotypes about their physical and mental competencies. The unintentional activation of stereotype threat in research designs can have negative repercussions, such as potential harm to the self-efficacy and self-esteem of older adult participants and potential threats to the validity of the research. For example, previous investigations have demonstrated older adults who were explicitly or implicitly primed to think that older adults have deteriorating cognitive capabilities performed poorer on subsequent cognitive tasks (Hess, Emery, & Queen, 2009).

We encourage aging researchers to think critically about the components of their design to reduce the risk of stereotype threat. Important considerations should also be given to how lab members communicate (written or through direct dialogue with participants) the research study topic. Common ways to reduce the activation of stereotype threat in older adults include:

  • Avoid making group identities salient (e.g., “the purpose of this study is to compare young vs. older adults”).
  • Avoid the use of stereotype-salient words (e.g., testing, memory, performance; Rahhal, Hasher, & Colcombe, 2001).
  • Avoid evaluation expectations, specifically, lower performance expectations (Steele & Aronson, 1995).

Planning ahead and providing training to new aging researchers can help avoid ethical problems as research progresses. We wish you all a productive year of aging research.

About the Authors

Jennifer Bellingtier is the new graduate student representative to the Div. 20 Executive Board. She is working on her PhD in lifespan developmental psychology at North Carolina State University where she is a member of the Daily Well-Being in Adulthood Lab under the supervision of Shevaun Neupert, PhD. Her research interests focus on individual's perceptions of their own aging and how those perceptions influence well-being, especially via the stress process.

Neika Sharifian is a doctoral student in the lifespan developmental psychology program at North Carolina State University. She works under Daniel Grühn, PhD, in the Adult Cognition and Emotion Lab. Her current research interests focus on emotional and psychological well-being in older adulthood and the impact of affective information on decision-making.


Dong, X., Simon, M.A., Mendes de Leon, C.F., Fulmer, T., Beck, T., Hebert, L., et al. (2009). Elder self-neglect and abuse and mortality risk in a community-dwelling population. Journal of the American Medical Association, 302, 517-526.

Hess, T. M., Emery, L., & Queen, T. L. (2009). Task demands moderate stereotype threat effects on memory performance. The Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 64B (4), 482-486.

Life span of Greater Rochester, Inc., Weill Cornell Medical Center of Cornell University & New York City Department for the Aging. (2011). Under the radar: New York State Elder Abuse Prevalence Study. New York: Author.

McGuire, J. (2009). Ethical considerations when working with older adults in psychology. Ethics & Behavior, 19 (2), 112-128. doi:10.1080/10508420902772702

Ragan, A.M., & Bowen, A.M. (2001). Improving attitudes regarding the elderly population: The effects of information and reinforcement for change. The Gerontologist, 41 (4), 511-515. doi:10.1093/geront/41.4.511

Rahhal, T.A., Hasher, L., & Colcombe, S.J. (2001) Instructional manipulations and age differences in memory: Now you see them, now you don't. Psychology and Aging, 16, 697-706.

Schaie, K. W. (1993). Ageist language in psychological research. American Psychologist, 48 (1), 49-51. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.48.1.49

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69 (5), 797-811.