Approaches to the Study of Consumer Behavior in Late Life

George P. Moschis, Georgia State University
[ to cite ]:
George P. Moschis (1991) ,"Approaches to the Study of Consumer Behavior in Late Life", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 517-520.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 517-520


George P. Moschis, Georgia State University

The increasing focus on the aging population has generated interest in understanding the consumer behavior of older adults. As a result, the need for using effective approaches to study this segment becomes apparent. This paper presents several approaches developed in social sciences; it attempts to make those interested in the area aware of these approaches and their potential for contribution to the field of consumer behavior.


Approaches to the study of human behavior in late life can be classified into two categories. Those which can be considered as traditional theories and those which fall into humanistic science.

"Traditional" Theories of Aging

'Traditional" theories correspond to the unreflective elaboration of the empirical-analytic sciences, all sharing com: non logical rules and ideal principles of explanation aimed at prediction and control of phenomena (cf. Moody 1988). Traditional theories can be classified in three categories, reflecting three different approaches to studying aging and age-related behaviors in late life. First, aging can be viewed as a biological phenomenon involving maturation and decline in various functions of the body. This model is primarily useful for guiding the work of physiologists and biologists who are interested in examining changes in va ious bodily functions over the life span.

Aging can also be viewed as a psychological development (process). Psychological aging has been studied either as a process of change in mental factors, or as a continuous process of evolution in the mind, commonly referred to as "human development." Unfortunately, one cannot predict patterns of aging effects on mental capacities and performance due to the dependence of these functions upon the body and its level of functioning which, in turn, shows wide variability. Human development, on the other hand, can be viewed either as a process moving through several discrete stages or as a continuous process of interaction with, or adjustment to, one's environment (Atchley 1987).

Finally, social aging involves the assignment of people to positions and roles by society based on ideas about what people at various ages or life stages are capable of and about what is appropriate for them. Age norms are conveyed to them through socialization, although people often anticipate and learn age-related changes before they encounter them (i.e., anticipatory socialization). The actual learning of these age norms is achieved through acculturation, while adaptation and negotiation allow people to fit themselves to new roles and vice versa (Atchley 1987).

Humanistic Theories of Aging

The contribution of humanities to theories of aging is reflected in three different approaches: dialectical gerontology, hermeneutic gerontology, and critical gerontology (Moody 1988). Dialectical gerontology is an approach which acknowledges the contradictory features of old age, trying to locate the contradictions within a historical and developmental framework. This approach would highlight contradictions rather than seeking theories of aging that would eliminate them. Germeneutic gerontology focuses on interpretations of facts or events, both in relationships between theory and fact and the relationship between theory and fact and the social behavior. Critical gerontology focuses on progressive and unfolding capacities of the human state, and refers to human development that recognizes aging as a movement toward freedom beyond domination (wisdom, autonomy, transcendence).


Traditional theories of aging include three types of theories: biological, psychological and social theories. These can be classified on the basis of the assumption about the location of causal factors: individual, environment, or both (Table 1).

Biological Theories. These theories assume that aging is affected by either genetic factors or environmental causes. Examples of the first category include theories such as wear-and-tear, cross-linkage, metabolic, programmed senescence, neuroendocrine, and immunological theory. Examples of environmental theories include free radical, somatic mutation, and error theory. All these theories attempt to explain aging of the body and its parts.

The biophysical approach suggests a wide variation among the older population with respect to aging. While explanations for aging and age-related behaviors are far from being adequate, the available data in this field suggest two important implications. First, physiological and biological changes may not occur at the same rate for all segments of the older market, and chronological age is not the appropriate variable to capture these changes. Thus, when we make inferences about the corresponding consumer behavior as a result of declining ability in certain areas (e.g., Schewe 1988 and 1989), we must keep in mind the wide variation in responses. The tendency to assume homogeneous responses from the aged market is a concern that ha captured the attention of theorists and practitioners. For example, Hendricks and Hendricks (1977) note that: "In constructing their explanations social scientists are forced to treat all members of a category as though they were identical." Second, the use of variables that measure a person's functional or physiological capacity may more appropriately capture aging than chronological age per se.



Psychological Theories. Psychological theories address the development and change of cognition (human development), and personality and self in late life. These theories explore adult cognitive development as it may be affected by biophysical factors (organismic), environmental influences (mechanistic), or both (contextual); they also focus on personality and self, attempting to explain changes over the life span either as an abrupt process (stage theories) or as a smooth transition (continuity theory and cognitive personality theory). Since the focus of these theories has been on explaining changes in personality and self-concept over the life-span, their usefulness in explaining consumer behavior in late life is not apparent. Theories of self appear to hold promise but researchers must resolve the issue of appropriate research design to be used (e.g., Sirgy 1982).

Theories of Social Aging. Theories of social aging focus on adaptation to old age or socialization to appropriate roles in late life. Among the most popular theories are activity, disengagement, and exchange theory. These are either of little usefulness to researchers of consumer behavior or have not been adequately supported (Passuth and Bengtson 1988). However, even though these theories may not prove useful in explaining a wide variety of consumer behaviors they may play important role in explaining linkages in broader conceptual or theoretical models. For example, these theories might help us explain patterns of social interaction in the broader model of age stratification.

The subcultural theory, on the other hand, is more pervasive in terms of its potential for application to the consumer field. Although the theory has not been rigorously tested it holds promise for its potential to explain homogeneity of consumer behavior in the aged subculture as well as specific subsegments (Moschis 1990).

The social breakdown theory is perhaps the model that most accurately depicts relationships between the individual and his/her environment. It offers sociological and psychological explanations Of the development of a psychological construct (self-concept). Yet, the model appears to be untestable. Even testing parts of the model based on labeling theory would be of questionable desirability, since previous testing failed to provide adequate support amidst controversies about its value and appropriateness (Moschis 1990). Modernization theory and political economy theory are macro-theories aimed at explaining consumer behavior of the elderly using countries or subcultures as unit of analysis.

The age stratification model is considered to be a vast improvement over other models of social aging (Hendricks and Hendricks 1977). Although it could be applied to several aspects of consumer behavior, its value is expected to be in explaining those for which society holds norms and expectations for older consumers in late life. One appeal of this model is its capability to accommodate several theoretical perspectives into a broader, more cohesive framework. Although cross-sectional data may be adequate for initial stages of research, longitudinal data are more appropriate for testing relationships between processes and their outcomes. Investigators working in this area should be aware of the plethora of issues surrounding the conceptualization and measurement of socialization processes and outcomes (Moschis 1987).



In testing the various theories researchers should focus on cognitive and overt processes and their influence on consumer behavior, rather than inferring the presence of such processes from differences in the observed behaviors. This is because observations of behaviors based on cross-sectional data could potentially provide explanation or support for more than one theory or perspective. For example, decline in consumer behavior measured as "age-differences," could be the effect of decline in biophysical abilities, psychological changes or social aging (e.g., disengagement); sustenance of self-concept could be explained by both activity and personality theories, and so on. Similarly, the measurement of processes using situations (e.g., the presence or absence of social visibility) should be validated, since they are based only on the researcher's judgment rather on the older person's perceptions and interpretation of the situation.

Multi-theoretical Perspectives. It is widely accepted that there is no single approach to the study of human behavior and age-related changes in late life. This is because aging is multidimensional -- that is, people age as biological beings, social beings, psychological beings and even as spiritual beings (Moody 1988). Thus, the study of human behavior in late life must take into account the variety of aging perspectives.

The multidimensional nature of aging has given impetus to the development of conceptual frameworks developed to incorporate several, and often diverse, theoretical perspectives. The processing-resource framework and the three-tier model of cognition are recent developments in the field of cognitive psychology of aging (cf. Moschis 1990). The psychometric approach is an atheoretical quantitative method designed to uncover traits and various aspects of cognition over the life span. The socialization perspective has been the topic of considerable attention in the areas of sociology, psychology, anthropology, mass communications, and more recently in consumer behavior (Moschis 1987). However, it is closest related to the field of sociology and is considered to be a more elaborate model than age stratification theory. The latter theory has also been a major influence on the development of another multi-theoretical framework, the life-course perspective (Passuth and Bengtson 1988).

Humanistic Science. Finally, the use of the interpretive perspective is suggested to study concepts that can not be easily explicated, described, measured, and defy explanation via traditional scientific approach. This perspective has been receiving increasing attention by social scientists and should not be ignored by consumer researchers who often claim to rely heavily on other disciplines.


Table 2 summarizes the usefulness of various approaches to the study of consumer behavior in late life. The ratings reflect potential for contribution to the field of consumer behavior based on criteria such as acceptance of the approach in other disciplines, potential for overcoming methodological and conceptual issues and for its potential to explain consumer behavior. These considerations, criteria and other basis for evaluating these approaches are discussed in detail elsewhere (Moschis 1990). The present classification is offered only as a rough guideline for future research, since there is some subjectivity involved in rating the various approaches.

In summary, the approaches available in other disciplines that could be used to study the older consumer are not full-fledged theories. Some are still in the initial stages of developing propositions-, while others have progressed at a more advanced stage of gathering data (Barrow and Smith 1983). The researcher should be constantly alert of developments in other disciplines that might provide insights into the value of an approach in understanding the older consumer.


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