Special Session Summary Cognitive Aging in Consumer Contexts

Carolyn Yoon, University of Toronto
[ to cite ]:
Carolyn Yoon (1996) ,"Special Session Summary Cognitive Aging in Consumer Contexts", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 155-156.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 155-156



Carolyn Yoon, University of Toronto




Cynthia P. May, University of Arizona

Lynn Hasher, Duke University



Carolyn Yoon, University of Toronto

Lynn Hasher, Duke University



Sharmistha Law, University of Toronto

Fergus I. M. Craik, University of Toronto



Catherine Cole, University of Iowa

Amongst the most significant trends shaping North American demography is the aging of the baby boomer generation. With birth rates declining and life expectancies increasing, the elderly segment is expected to continue on its path of disproportionate growth for several decades to come. This phenomenon has recently garnered a good deal of media attention and, consequently, many marketers have started to identify and develop products and services that would appeal to this segment. But while there appears to be widespread agreement about the importance of more effectively targeting and communicating to the senior market, relatively little theory-based research exists in the consumer behavior literature to guide marketers in addressing these issues (see Cole and Houston, 1987 for an exception). This is somewhat surprising in light of the enormous volume of theoretical and empirical research that has been generated by gerontologists and cognitive aging psychologists in the last decade.

Although knowledge about cognitive aging is far from complete, a general finding in the literature is that older adults have memory deficiencies when compared to young adults (Kausler, 1990; Salthouse, 1991). A number of theoretical explanations have been advanced by cognitive aging researchers to explain such age-related impairments in memory. Two of the most widely accepted theoretical approaches for conceptualizing decrements in cognitive performance in older adults are reduced processing resources (Craik, 1983; Craik and Byrd, 1982; Hasher and Zacks, 1979; Zacks and Hasher, 1988) and deficient inhibitory functioning (Hasher and Zacks, 1988). This session brought together three papers that served to demonstrate how these theoretical accounts of cognitive aging can be applied to settings that improve our understanding of information processing by older consumers.

The first paper by May and Hasher adopted the inhibition view to account for age differences in cognitive functioning. Based on two studies, they presented evidence that changes in inhibitory functioning may be responsible for the synchrony between an individual's peak in circadian arousal and the time of testing in both young and older adults. Different tasks were used to assess individuals' ability to inhibit or prevent strong, well-learned responses that were inappropriate for the particular context. Results across the studies indicated three consistent findings: (1) generally speaking, older adults are less efficient at inhibiting unwanted responses; (2) both younger and older adults demonstrate deficits in inhibitory functioning at their off-peak times of day; (3) the magnitude of age differences in inhibitory functioning depends critically on the time of day at which individuals are tested. In the morning, when older adults are at their peak but the young adults are not, age differences in inhibition are attenuated and in some instances eliminated. In the evening, however, when young but not old are at their peak, age differences are robust and potentially exaggerated. Implications of these results for marketing to the elderly market were discussed.

The second paper by Yoon and Hasher employed the limited capacity framework to study age-related processing differences and investigated how age differences may be reduced by time of day and message incongruity. They found that during optimal time of day when greater resource capacity is available, older consumers are more sensitive to changes in message incongruity and are able to engage in levels of detailed processing that are equivalent to those of young adults. During non-optimal time of day, however, older people were found to rely on schema-based processing regardless of the level of cue incongruity. Finally, implications for persuasibility of the elderly in consumer contexts were discussed.

The final paper by Law and Craik investigated how mere repetition of statements results in an inflated rating of their validity ("truth effect") and how memory is an important mediator of this effect. Since normal aging is associated with declines in memory performance, the overall purpose of this research was to examine whether older adults are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of repetition, and whether conditions exist under which these age-related differences can be "remedied." In two separate experiments, the elderly were shown to be more susceptible to the truth inflating effect of repetition and that task conditions exist which eliminate this age-related difference.

The discussion led by Cole emphasized the importance of accounting for various subject-related and task factors in studying age differences in cognitive functioning in consumer and applied contexts.


Cole, C. A., & Houston, M. J. (1987). Encoding and Media Effects on Consumer Learning Deficiencies in the Elderly. Journal of Consumer Research, 24, 55-63.

Craik, F. I. M. (1983). On the Transfer of Information from Temporary to Permanent Storage. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B, 302, 341-359.

Craik, F. I. M., & Byrd, M. (1982). Aging and Cognitive Deficits: The Role of Attentional Resources. In F. I. M. Craik & S. Trehub (Eds.), Aging and Cognitive Processes: Advances in the Study of Communication and Affect (pp. 191-211). New York: Plenum Press.

Hasher, L., & Zacks, R. T. (1979). Automatic and Effortful Processes in Memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 108, 356-388.

Hasher, L. & Zacks, R. T. (1988). Working Memory, Comprehension, and Aging: A Review and a New view. In G. H. Bower (Ed.), The Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Advances in Research and Theory, Vol. 22. San Diego: Academic Press.

Kausler, D. H. (1990). Motivation, Human Aging, and Cognitive Performance. In J. E. Birren & K. W. Schaie (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Aging (pp. 171-182). San Diego: Academic Press.

Salthouse, T. A. (1991). Theoretical Perspectives on Cognitive Aging. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Zacks, R. T., & Hasher, L. (1988). Capacity Theory and the Processing of Inferences. In L. L. Light & D. M. Burke (Eds.), Language, Memory and Aging (pp. 154-170). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.