There is little in the functioning of the brain to stop a Third Age Consumer from behaving the same as their younger selves (See Newsletter #030). However, research on how consumers make decisions shows that their processes do change with age. We become more loyal to our providers. We will use short cuts to make decisions. We seem to spend less time deliberating over decisions. The question is why, if it is not due to the decline in cognitive ability?
A huge study of car purchasing in France best illustrates the changes. It comes from an annual survey of recent car purchasers. Thirty thousand respondents answered the questionnaire within three months of buying a car. It covered the make and model of the car purchased and the owner’s previous car. It asked about the other brands and models considered. It also included the number of dealers visited. It even got data on the overall satisfaction with the purchase, with the previous car and with the dealer.
The results show a consistent pattern of decision simplification as people get older. The number of brands considered declines with age. Considering only one brand is significantly higher in the “seventy-five and above” category. The number of models considered within brand and the number of dealers also reduces with age. The propensity to go to only one dealer increases. It goes from just under fifty percent for the youngest group of buyers to eighty percent for those “seventy-five and over”.
Satisfaction with the previous car was also measured. This means it was possible to separate the impact of age from that of satisfaction. Are buyers buying the same car because they were satisfied with it previously? Are they buying it because age makes them more loyal? Analysis showed that older people were still more loyal independent of satisfaction. Age still influenced their choices
Why does this happen? It appears that there are two causes. Older people can draw on their expertise to make many of their decisions. Newsletter #021, described how older customers use their accumulated memories to make more efficient decisions. The second reason is that age brings a change of objectives. Life becomes too short to waste time on routine and irrelevant decisions.
“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”
This iconic song was written by Eric Idle for the 1971 Monty Python cult film “Life of Brian”. It has gone on to be one of the top twenty songs chosen for funerals in the UK. It is now the title of Idle’s autobiography. It could easily be the anthem for the healthy Third and Fourth Agers. Across many aspects of their lives, they look on the “bright side”.
Eye tracking studies can measure what people focus on in real time. Researchers have shown that older people look towards happy faces. They look away from negative faces much more than their young counterparts.
Far more of what an older person remembers is positive. Pictures of three types were shown to different age groups of people. Some pictures were positive, others neutral and the third group emotionally upsetting. The older people were, the more they remembered the positive images. The older they were, the less they remembered the negative ones. Gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic level did not effect the relationship.
In another study, older and younger adults selected information to examine health choices. They did this by clicking on cues. They also indicated whether they saw the information as positive, neutral, or negative. As predicted, older adults remembered a much higher percentage of the positive information. Older adults are more likely to request, and process information presented in a positive way. This is preferred to a negative presentation. Perhaps advertising agencies should remember this when developing charity campaigns. Showing pictures of victims to older donors may not be the best strategy. Those same donors are often the best givers.
Not only do we only remember positive things when we get older, but we will “re-write history” to make it positive. We remember good decisions and suppress poor ones. Older adults will also distort their memories of past health issues. They will remember them as more positive than they were.
The explanation for this behaviour came from Laura Carstensen. Working at Stanford University she witnessed the impact of HIV on the San Francisco homosexual community. She saw many young men whose lives were being tragically shortened. She wondered whether their motivations were the same as older people. Both were facing death. She found it was the case. She formulated her her “socio-emotional selectivity theory” as an explanation.
Basically she argued that “Life becomes Too Short” to deal with negative experiences and the emotions that they cause. Instead we seek emotional experiences that are more predictable and likely to be positive. We consciously avoid encounters with others that we predict will cause feelings of sadness, fear, or anger. The theory goes on to suggest that a shorter time horizon focuses us more on the present. Our emphasis becomes what can be experienced and enjoyed now.
Older people focus on their own emotional wellbeing more. They allocate their time differently. They try to control or regulate their emotional experiences. They seek positive and pleasurable events. They minimize the risk of negative emotions. They will actively avoid potentially negative situations.
All of this seems to work. General life satisfaction tends to increase with age. The only exception are the final few years of the Fourth Age. Are they making bad decisions? It depends on your objectives.