Older Really Is Wiser

Late-night TV advertisements often paint a picture of older adults as terminally bewildered. The advertisements depict seniors trying to make sense of their health care options, insurance plans, retirements accounts, etc. - and failing miserably. These TV seniors are invariably confused beyond redemption until another senior, usually a former celebrity, steps in to offer a vastly simplified solution and the piece of mind that comes with it — all for a modest price that seems always to be paid in low monthly installments.

But, are older adults (beyond 65) really so easily confused? Are they always in need of the salvation that can — apparently — be bought for low monthly fees?

Well, sort of, but not really.

There is substantial evidence that suggests that older adults do decide differently. The difference is usually that older adults review less information. It also appears to be the case that older adults are more likely to consider the “wrong” information, and therefore to make suboptimal choices. When the experiments are set up so that the choices can be ranked from best to worst, older adults are less likely than younger adults to pick the best.

So, that seems like a problem. And to the extent that senior citizens have to make difficult decisions concerning complex products, it seems to be.

But most spending decisions are not like that. Most involve the kinds of things that make day-to-day life a little more pleasant (or not), like where and what to eat, what movies to see, what clothes to wear, cars to drive, etc. When it comes to these kinds of decisions, older adults still consider fewer data points and still make objectively suboptimal decisions. However, these decisions seem to work out better, not worse.

For instance, if you ask a group of adults about the last time they bought something with the intention of making themselves happier — as we at beyondthepurchase.com are wont to do, the older the person you ask, the more likely it is that they’ll report being happy with what they bought.

There are competing explanations for this:

1) As we age, we may actually get better at buying things that make us happy.

There is substantial evidence that when what remains of the day seems not very much, we take the “life is too short” approach. We worry less about impressing and more about relating. We focus less on making new friends and more on caring for the people we already know. And, we put less effort into activities and things that might make us seem smart, or cool, or hot, and more that just make us feel good.

On the other hand…

2) It may be that as we age, we don’t actually get better at buying stuff, we are just more likely to like whatever we buy.

Reams of research on the aging process has documented a very clear positivity bias in older adults. In other words, as we age, we tend to see the world more and more through rose colored glasses. So, that’s the really good news about getting older. We manage our emotions better, recover from upsets more quickly, and tend to preferentially recall the good things over the bad.

So, is it that as we age, we are better at buying things that make us happy? Or, is it that as we age, we just like whatever we buy?

At beyondthepurchase.com, this is one of the questions we are attempting to answer.

You can help us find out by taking some of our quizzes. Along the way, we think you’ll find out a bit more about why you buy and what makes you happy.

Or, maybe you’ll just decide afterwards that you liked doing it.

We encourage you to take the Implicit Buying Motives Study and the Consumer Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence Scale, the Materialistic Values Scale and the Experiential Buying Tendencies Scales and find out about your own values — as well as those of your friends. We think you may learn a lot about how you relate to money, spending and your social life.

This blog post was written by Kerry Cunningham, a researcher in the Personality and Wellbeing Laboratory at San Francisco State University. Follow @kerryfc

About Kerry

Kerry has an M.S. in Industrial-Organizational psychology and something just short of 20 years experience as a manager and executive in b2b direct marketing. Currently, Kerry works with organizations to improve processes and practices in the area of people management. In addition, Kerry has a deep and abiding passion for all things evolution, but particularly evolutionary perspectives on organizational and economic behavior. When not geeking out with research literature and data, Kerry is generally playing tennis and/ or enjoying a restorative cocktail.
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