Information Processing and the Older Consumer: Marketing and Public Policy Implications

Ivan Ross, University of Minnesota
ABSTRACT - The paper summarizes selected psychological literature describing information acquisition, storage, and retrieval research as it helps to explain consumer information processing characteristics of older consumers. Recent survey data describing media and shopping habits and attitudes ar discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Ivan Ross (1982) ,"Information Processing and the Older Consumer: Marketing and Public Policy Implications", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 31-39.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 31-39


Ivan Ross, University of Minnesota


The paper summarizes selected psychological literature describing information acquisition, storage, and retrieval research as it helps to explain consumer information processing characteristics of older consumers. Recent survey data describing media and shopping habits and attitudes ar discussed.


The last several years have seen an explosion in books, articles, and journals devoted to physiological, psychological, economic, and socio-cultural factors associated with aging. Primary journals are the Journal of Gerontology and The Gerontologist, published by the Gerontological Society. Recent books of particular note on the general issues are by Aiken (1978), Johnson and Williamson (1980), Ward (1979), Sprott (1980), Schwartz and Peterson (1979), Botwinick (1978), Oyer and Oyer (1976), and Birren and Schaie (1977), but only one compilation of research on older consumers per se exists (Waddell, 1976).

The "older" American is becoming more numerous, both in absolute and relative terms. The 1980 census counted approximately 59 million Americans as age 50 or older, more than 262 of the population, and about 25.5 million as 65 or over, about 11.3% of the population (Robey, 1981). Their presence has become more important to both the private and public sectors as their numbers have grown. Literally hundreds of federal programs, agencies, and councils have been created, mostly within the past 15 years, to address special needs of older Americans. Indeed, there is now an "Aging Enterprise" (Estes, 1979), although some have questioned whether these various policies were enacted to serv the interests of older persons or, rather, the various interest groups who profit from serving this segment of society.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) now numbers about 9 million members, and publishes the magazine, Modern Maturity. The National Retired Federal Employees, and the National Council of Senior Citizens, are other "older American" organizations whose numbers are increasing dramatically. Magazines such as Dynamic Maturity, 50 Plus and Prime Time, and television programs such as "Getting On", and "Over Easy", reflect the growing recognition of the older American as a distinct market segment.

Several recently published papers have focused on information processing characteristics of older consumers (e.g., Meadow, et. al., 1981, and Phillips and Sternthal, 1977), and this paper will not be duplicative of the substantial literature reviews and interpretations contained therein. Rather, the author will briefly review some of the psychological literature describing information acquisition, storage, and retrieval research as it helps to explain consumer information processing characteristics of older consumers. Then, recent survey data describing media and shopping habits and attitudes will be discussed.


The logical starting place in reviewing information processing issues is to focus on sensory research among older persons as it impacts their ability to acquire, store, and retrieve information. Only a cursory review is possible within the limitations of this paper, but the interested reader will find more detail in the references cited in the introduction.


That most human abilities show progressive decline after age 25 or so is typically asserted in every psychology textbook. In his reviews of extant literature Botwinick (1977, 1978) concludes that intellectual abilities do show general declines but more so in tests of intellectual functioning which measure psychomotor skills (especially when speeded or when involving perceptual-manipulative integration) than in measures which stress stored information and verbal ability. Schaie (1980) in his review of both cross-sectional and longitudinal data concurs and concludes that decrement is not universal on all intelligence components and for all people until the late 80's and that decrement is mostly on abilities which require speeded responses. There are clearly wide individual differences and for many people there is apparently very little, if any, decline.

In studies of human learning, most are conducted with manipulation of both information acquisition time and of response (performance) time. It is important to distinguish between the two when addressing learning differences with age. There is evidence that both acquisition time and response (performance) time is slower with age, but when acquisition and response can be self-paced, there is less (but still significant) difference in learning quality with age (Botwinick, 1978, p. 277-278).

In their review of the "pacing" literature, Phillips and Sternthal (1977) conclude that whatever diminution in processing speed exists among older persons, if they are given sufficient time needed or wanted to process information, there ought be little, if any, impact on resultant learning.

With advancing age both search and retrieval of more recently learned memories as compared with older memories is impaired (Botwinick, 1978, p. 360). However, some researchers find little or no age declines in memory span or storage. For example, Kriauciunas (1968) found memory declines with age only for subject matter presented with competing stimuli, which he argues could be attributed to diminished motivation/energy and speed of performance.


Substantial visual changes occur with age, and since most consumer behavior-relevant information is presented visually (newspaper, magazine, direct mail, television, instruction brochures, product labeling, etc.), this sensory modality has the most impact on the subject addressed in this paper.

Visual perceptual functioning changes with age are mediated by two classes or stages. First, between the ages of 35-45, the transmissiveness and accommodative capabilities of the eye, affecting distance vision, glare and color sensitivity, and binocular depth perception, begin to deteriorate. Second, between 55-65, changes occur in the retina and nervous system which influence the size of the visual field and sensitivity to low quantities of light and to flicker (Fozard et. al., 1977, p. 497).

Botwinick (1978) states that by age 70, without correction, poor vision of one sort or another is the rule (p. 142). Presbyopia (farsightedness -- loss in ability to focus on near objects due to loss of elasticity of the eye lenses), and cataracts (causing glare problems) are common after age 70.



A survey reported by Eger (1976) undertaken by the American Optometric Association among 3000 "senior citizens" found that:

"Nearly one-third of those surveyed feel their inability to see well prevents them from performing different activities such as household chores, recreation, business, etc...nearly 30% have difficulty watching television, and among those surveyed who drive, 8: have some trouble driving during daylight hours, while 45: have some trouble or can't drive at night . . . only about 15% of those surveyed categorized their vision as excellent" (p. 166).

Bader (1979) has classified the relative legibility as well as the "quality" of information (as an aid to decision making) of various printed materials (see Table l). Note that in the upper left cell, special problems are suggested in the ability that older consumers may have to read label information. Indeed, Silvenis (1979) notes that a person wearing bifocals cannot clearly focus a print image at a distance of 15 inches. With federal regulations requiring more information on product labels, the resultant small print size is apt to pose difficulties. That such difficulty occurs is shown in surveys conducted by Mason and Bearden (1979) and Lambert (1979) and may help to account for the fact that older consumers show substantially lower levels of familiarity than younger with nutritional labeling, open-dating, and unit pricing (Bearden and Mason, 1979).

Silvenis (1979) and Bader (1979) make several suggestions regarding implications of visual acuity difficulties older consumers may face:

1. Increase levels of illumination. Generally, after age 45, 100% more illumination is needed every 13 years.

2. Use non-glare paper stock and absorptive background colors with highly reflective printing but avoid glossy surfaces or florescent colors. Even though reds and yellows are easier to distinguish than greens and blues, Silvenis (1979) notes that many companies have chosen green and blue as dominant packaging colors.

3. If small printing is necessary, use black on flat white, light tan, or light grey backgrounds. Avoid script type or other stylish forms of print. Bader (1979) recommends Bookmans Century School book, or Helvetica typeface and type size of at least 11 point.

4. Use underlining, boxing, or other forms of emphasis on labeling or instructions. Contrast the ingredients, net weight, directions for use and product cautions, and include the same information in a large print insert where packaging is involved.

In many cases it may be impractical for companies to adapt their visual information systems (e.g. package color and print size) or lighting environments (e.g. retail store illumination levels) to accommodate special needs of older consumers, and on the other hand, there may be few instances where older consumers compose a sufficiently large segment of the market for a particular product or service, or, across products and services, within a specific store trade area, that special information strategies suggested above may be useful. Exceptions would be products and services primarily intended for older consumers and stores located in "older consumer" communities. However, for example, when pharmacists encounter an older consumer who may appear to have vision problems, it would obviously be wise to determine if the patient is able to read the instructions. It may well be true that if such a person has vision difficulty, there may be no other person in his/her household to assist, given the disproportionately larger number of older persons who live alone.


Advancing age typically results in presbycusis, that is, a progressive bilateral loss of hearing for high frequency tones (Corso, 1977). Other physiological changes in the auditory system affect thresholds for pure tones and speech and differential thresholds for pitch discrimination, speech discrimination, and information processing as in dichotic listening (where different stimulus material is presented to each ear). Generally, in the presence of background noise or when others are speaking rapidly, the older listener has difficulty. Rapid speech declines in intelligibility because of the longer persistence of auditory traces for one word or sound which interferes with processing the next word. Thus, there is an "earlier fusing" of words or sounds among older as compared with younger people which makes for greater unintelligibility (Botwinick, 1978, p. 165). Bettinghaus and Bettinghaus (1976) note that hearing impairments which come later in life pose more problems than if at a younger age since for the latter, programs exist to teach sign language in school whereas no such programs generally exist for persons whose impairment comes later in life.

Thomas Dupont, senior vice-president of Oxtoby-Smiths suggests that changes in hearing (as well as in vision and memory) among older people causes them to process information differently which directly impacts rules which ought be followed in packaging and television advertising:

"Avoid cluttering ads or packages with too much visual information. Use action in commercials if it's relevant and isn't distracting. Avoid "talking heads", fast-speaking characters or those who don't enunciate clearly. Present a clear, bright and sharp picture. Keep the language and message simple, with the focus on one or two selling points. Relate new information to something with which the audience is familiar" (Dupont, 1981).

Olfaction, Touch and Pain

Smell and taste sensitivity have been subject to less research than visual and auditory acuity. There is some albeit mixed evidence that with advancing age there is a decrease in taste sensitivity and a change in test preferences (e.g. bitter shows increasing aversion with age), but little or no measurable change in smell discrimination or preference (Engen, 1977).

Most somethetic thresholds (e.g. two-point touch, vibratory, thermal, tactile) show increased values (i.e. lower sensitivity/discrimination) with age (Kenshalo, 1977), but subjective perceptions of pain may be very common among older persons (Botwinick, 1978).

Problem Solving

In their review of the psychological literature, Arenberg and Robertson-Tchabo (1980) and Botwinick (1978) conclude that problem solving skills show consistent decline with age, particularly for those in their seventies. Further, older people clearly prefer and perform better with tasks or problems which are structured in concrete rather than in abstract terms, although educational attainment may account for some of this tendency (Botwinick, 1978, p. 241). Older people are also less able to ignore irrelevant information in problem solving tasks and, therefore, redundancy may interfere with both speed and accuracy of problem solving (Botwinick, 1978, ?. 257). Inflexibility of thought or rigidity has also been related to aging. Although the evidence is mixed, it appears that older people may be at a special disadvantage when information is presented which contains both positive and negative instances of the same problem, but when the specifically relevant information is left unspecified (Botwinick, 1978, p. 257). Similarly cautiousness in problem solving/decision making is often observed among older people which may stem from general discomfort with the uncertain and/or with the expectation and fear of failure. This accounts for the frequent finding that older people value accuracy over speed and will often avoid responding altogether if there is a chance of making a mistake. In general, older people do not tend to risk being wrong for the sake of being right or fast (Botwinick, 1978, p. 125).

This propensity toward cautiousness has been variously explained. For example, Oyer (1976) concludes that:

"The rate of socialization or the rate at which people absorb information from their environment decreases in the older years, so that younger people tend to absorb more from present stimuli than do older ones. By comparison, younger people have more of a tabula rasa, or "blank sheet", that, like a blotter, is ready to absorb the new. But older people possess an experience base that usually permits them to evaluate in a more cautious manner the surrounding events" (p. 45).

And, Botwinick (1978) speculates:

"Why do the elderly behave in a way suggesting that greater certainty and structure is desirable? First, there is decline in certain functions in which older people have shown inclinations toward cautiousness. Second, the social order values youth, not old age. Society meets man's aging with rejection and expectation of failure. It is to be expected, then, that aging man would withdraw, desire certainty, and inhibit his response to avoid mistakes. Third, other personality variables may relate to cautiousness. Anxiety, for example, thought to stem from feelings of inadequacy, may make for general withdrawal and cautious response" (p. 126).


Schutz, Baird and Hawker (1979) conducted an intensive study of 309 non-institutionalized adults aged 45 and over residing in the San Francisco/Oakland SMSA. They found that personal judgment and experience were reported as the most frequently relied-on sources of consumer information, followed by advice of family and friends and then, printed information (magazines, newspapers, Yellow Pages, labels, etc.). There was no apparent relationship between age (within this age range) and store choice nor for a variety of most other shopping behaviors. However, Bernhardt and Kinnear (1975) found that those over 65 were more likely to shop at traditional department stores and showed willingness to travel to downtown shopping districts and to pay higher prices for department store merchandise. A similar preference for favoring "downtown" stores for shopping consumer durables was reported by Mason and Smith (1974).

A number of surveys and reviews of the literature show that information (and entertainment) carried on television and in the newspaper is disproportionately more time-consuming and important to older than to younger people (Atkin, 1976, Bernhardt and Kinnear, 1975, French and Crask, 1977, Stephens, 1981, and Schramm, 1969).

An update on general media and shopping attitudes and behaviors of Americans is provided by a major advertising agency (Needham, Harper and Steers, 1981) as part of its annual "Life Style Study" survey of approximately 4000 U.S. adults conducted through Market Facts' Consumer Mail Panel. This sample closely represents 1980 U.S. Census statistics on age (among other parameters), but may not faithfully represent data on the "65 and over" segment since almost 98 percent of males and 99 percent of females in this sample reported living with a spouse, a much higher percentage, of course, than actually in the population. Also, the fact that this was a mail survey may especially influence the atypical nature of older respondents on dimensions related to information processing.

Nevertheless, Table 2 contains readership data on four daily newspaper sections. Generally, age is positively associated with newspaper readership for both sexes. Older respondents (65 and over) were more apt than younger to be readers of the news, food, and comics section. And although readership of the business section peaks in the 4554 segments, it is almost as high (for males) in the two older age segments (55-64 and 65 and over). Thus, whether for "information" (news, business, food) or "entertainment" (comics), readership frequency increases with age.

Table 3 reports results for television and radio. Older Americans are heavier than average viewers of television and listeners to AM radio (both weekdays and weekends), although few differences appear after age 35. FM radio, however, shows a reverse pattern, with those people under age 35 spending more hours with this medium.

Several issues reflected in the Needham, Harper, Steers survey bear on the general question of information processing. One set of questions, for example, dealt with shopping styles and general information gathering activity. Table 4 shows these results

The first three behaviors might be said to describe "wise purchasing propensity" or an "economy orientation"; used a "price-off" coupon, bought a generic product, and shopped at a discount store. Overall, of course, females are more apt than males to have done all of these things because they still are apt to do disproportionately more of the shopping for the household, but note that in the "65 and over" category there is much less sex fact, men are more apt than women, in this age category, to have bought a generic product in the past 12 months. This pattern of similarity may well suggest that there are fewer shopping style distinctions among older than younger consumers, although, again, this may be due to social and economic forces rather than to age, per se.

Aside from the fact that older people are more similar in these three behaviors than younger, it is also true that in the first two behaviors..."price-off coupons" and "bought a generic product", there is not much difference across ages, holding set constant, except for a sudden jump in men using price-off coupons as they cross age 65. "Shopping at a discount store", however, is different. After age 45, and especially after age 65, there is a drop in discount store usage. This may have to do with mobility. . .older persons having less automobile access may be less apt to easily avail themselves of discount stores, still disproportionately located in the suburbs, where, of course, older persons are less apt to be than the population as whole.









Toll-free number usage to get product/service information is least frequently used by the 65 and older group as compared with younger age groups. Logically, this would seem to be an extremely flexible and inexpensive way to obtain information, especially for older persons who may have physical mobility limitations. Is the reason for lower usage here that the products and services with 800 toll-free numbers are less fitting with older consumer's usage? Or do older persons have less ability to dial numbers and/ or to read/remember toll-free numbers when advertised or when printed on packages, labeling, or inserts?

Table 5 describes shopping attitudes. It is apparent that older persons report they are l) more apt to pay cash for what they buy, 2) more apt to save and redeem savings stamps, 3) more apt to shop for.specials (among males only), 4) less apt to use credit cards for extended payment purposes, 5) less apt to buy on impulse, 6) more apt to make up a list before shopping, and 7) more apt to check prices. Table 6 indicates that older consumers are more reliant upon and trusting of advertising than younger, and that they are more "name brand" oriented than younger consumers.

Table 7 shows how over 65's identify their ages psychologically rather than chronologically, utilizing a scale developed by Barak and Schiffman (1980). Naturally, since we do not know exactly how old these over 65 year old respondents are we can't exactly relate their self-concept ages, so to speak, to their chronological ages. But, clearly, a large number of older people feel, look, do, and have interests of younger persons.

Roughly half say they feel to be in their 50's or younger, more than a third believe they look 50 or less, half of the men and 60 percent of the women perceive that they do most things as though they were in their 50's or younger, and about 60 percent believe their interests are of 50 year olds or younger people.

Although one cannot move from such data directly to managerial or policy implications, we might well see in these data some basis for assuming that many over 65 would prefer to be dealt with as if they were younger in terms of looks, interests, and activities. This conclusion is also consistent with at least some Madison Avenue thinking on how older people are best appealed to (Gage, 1980; Kaplan, 1980; and Fisher, 1980).

The "security" or "cautiousness" propensity of older persons, previously referred to, is supported by data in Table 8. "Routine" is clearly more important to older consumers, life is more orderly ("one thing at a time"), and "everything is changing too fast today", is a widely endorsed belief. Females show high self-confidence relative to other ages, but males, less,








Most of the research on older persons is based upon cross-sectional designs which can only yield information above age differences, not about changes with age. For the latter, we must have longitudinal designs, or, arguably, independent samples from the same birth cohort measured at different times. And depending upon the design employed, different results obtain. For the example, cross-sectional designs result in the appearance of greater age differences, and longitudinal designs, the least. That this is true tells us that there are many fewer reliably identified changes with age than there are differences between ages of people measured cross-sectionally.

As marketing managers or as public policy makers, it is probably true that we are as or more concerned with current age differences, even if these differences are not caused by age per se, since these differences are the "here and now" and are not apt to be so transitory that actions/policies tailored for them would be inappropriate in the near-term future. Presbyopia or other infirmities associated with aging may not be immutable given new medical marvels. But it is a condition very common among older consumers today, and it (and other age-related conditions) will interfere with the acquisition of information.

However important these differences or changes are, it is important to keep the matter in perspective. Deterioration in motor skills (locomotion, speech, manual dexterity etc.) is apt to be far more impactful on consumer behaviors than are the result of diminished sensory processes, and other research points to the clear conclusion that social/life-style/health factors, e.g. household composition, income/general financial situation, physical health, social integration/interaction), many of which are involuntarily assumed with advancing age, are probably even more pertinent to the question of how older people may behave in the marketplace and/or be benefitted by public policy.

When we think of consumer information processing implications for marketing management or public policy, we typically think about the issue in the context of how information could be improved for making "better" or more satisfactory consumption decisions, and hence we focus on advertising, labeling, and so on, as these relate to the individual consumer's purchase or consumption of an end product or service. But when we focus on older consumers not only do we have this traditional framework to consider, we have what is undoubtedly an even more complex situation created by the fact that for many older persons, their ability to acquire and process information is crucial to their success in dealing with the multitude of policies (and attendant bureaucratic structures) only through which a variety of end-consummatory experiences can occur. For example, Social Security provides various reimbursements for health and housing. Not only must the older consumer covered by Social Security process information about ultimate health/housing decisions, he/she must also be able to understand and deal with Social Security information which describes/delimits which expenses are covered. Table l suggests that such information may not be very "consumable." Thus, a major task for older consumers (or younger, if put into the same policy maze) is to learn how to access the "system" which moderates the provision of needed products and services. How do older people communicate their needs to this system, especially when the language of the system and that of the prospective user may not be the same (Mauldin. 1976. 119-120)?

The consumer behavior of the older person remains a fruitful, albeit difficult, area for future research.


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