In Brief

When comparing products or services, older adults generally focus on positive features more than younger adults do, according to a study in the February Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Vol. 134, No. 1, pages 38-51).

Older adults also tend to directly compare a few specific aspects of a choice--considering, for example, an apartment's rent, a health plan's deductible or a car's gas mileage; meanwhile younger adults typically use a more holistic approach--comparing an overall evaluation of an option with another, the study suggests.

In the study, lead researcher Mara Mather, PhD, and her University of California, Santa Cruz, colleagues tested 44 younger adults in their early to mid-20s and 48 older adults in their late 60s to early 80s. First, the researchers presented participants with a choice of two apartments.

Then they asked participants to read descriptions of two apartments. Participants could directly compare only some of the choices' features. For example, in one version, only one apartment was pictured, preventing participants from comparing the apartments' appearances.

The following day, the researchers asked participants to recall as many features as they could from the two choices. Although there was little difference in participants' recall, the researchers found that older adults were more likely to remember positive features, such as "spacious kitchen," while younger adults were more likely to remember negative features, like "on a noisy street."

In addition, participants--particularly older adults with high recall--remembered features that had been directly comparable across the two options far better than noncomparable features.

In a follow-up experiment, the same participants chose between several car models whose various options--such as for fuel economy--appeared on a computer screen. The study found that older adults spent more of their time looking at the cars' positive features, while younger adults spent more time looking at the negative features.

Moreover, among older and younger adults with the best recall, older adults were more likely to look across car options to compare their features, whereas younger adults were more likely to look at all the information about one car before moving on to the next one.

Since the largest age differences in choice strategies were seen among participants with similar levels of recall, Mather does not attribute their different appraisal strategies to cognitive differences, as some researchers have posited. (A previous study had suggested that older adults' features-based strategy was due to diminished working-memory capacity.)

Instead, Mather attributes the finding to older adults' greater focus on emotional goals, such as happiness. Conversely, younger adults concentrate on informational goals, she says.

"As people get closer to the end of their life their goals shift to become more emotional," Mather says. "What they find important changes, and they remember things in a more positive way."

In the future psychologists need to conduct further research on differences in goals for older and younger adults to better understand the strategies that guide their choices, Mather says.

This line of research could have implications for companies' consumer marketing, she notes. For example, highlighting a competitor's negative features may be a less effective strategy for influencing older consumers.