Proposal and Development of a Dialectical Model: Examining the Elderly Consumer

ABSTRACT - This paper proposes and develops a model of elderly consumer socialization based on theoretical perspectives and empirical findings which combine the mechanistic and organismic approaches to development. Whereas the concept of consumer socialization has been applied only in studies of the young, it is suggested that it can apply to the elderly; and specific variables which could be included in such a model are discussed.


Ruth Belk Smith and George P. Moschis (1989) ,"Proposal and Development of a Dialectical Model: Examining the Elderly Consumer", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 285-292.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 285-292


Ruth Belk Smith, University of Balitmore

George P. Moschis, Georgia State University


This paper proposes and develops a model of elderly consumer socialization based on theoretical perspectives and empirical findings which combine the mechanistic and organismic approaches to development. Whereas the concept of consumer socialization has been applied only in studies of the young, it is suggested that it can apply to the elderly; and specific variables which could be included in such a model are discussed.


In spite of increasing interest shown by marketers and other groups such as educators and public policy makers in the elderly consumer, marketing researchers (e.g., Schiffman 1971, 1972a, 1972b; Phillips and Sternthal 1977) have only begun to attempt to increase as well as interpret what little research there is on the topic (Meadow, Cosmas, and Plotkin 1980). Because of the steadily increasing size of this population segment, expected to grow 100 percent in fifty years (Al an 1581) it has become of even more concern to these various groups. Even gerontologists have specifically addressed the area of the elderly consumer behavior (e.g. Klippel and Sweeney 1974, Krauser et al. 1983). The available research is primarily descriptive; however, and lacks theoretical structure (Meadow, Cosmas, and Plotkin 1980). What is needed are specific conceptual frameworks to guide research in this area so that we may move from "mere ad hoc responses to scientific questions toward the cohesive bodies of knowledge characteristic of disciplines" (Shocker and Zaltman 1977, p. 405) The purpose of this study is to suggest an approach to the study of the elderly consumer which includes the biological, psychological, and sociological aspects which most gerontologists (e.g. Atchley 1972, Neugarten 1968; Riley et al. 1969) agree influence the aging process. Two theoretical perspectives, developmental and social learning, are integrated by the socialization approach into a dialectical model which considers both the mechanistic and organismic orientations to life span development.


Most explanations of differences in the behavior of the elderly are closely tied to theories of alterations in the biophysical and socio-psychological stages of life-span development. Aging is a complex phenomenon involving sociological, psychological, and biological factors (Atchley 1972, Baltes 1978, Botwinick 1978, Neugarten and Havighurst 1976, Riley and Foner 1968), and any attempt to give a complete picture of the life span through analysis of only one of these dimensions would be misleading. As Koller (1968) states, "The unraveling of the tangled skein of biological changes, psychological attributes, a,nd social factors complicates the problem of fully understanding aging individuals. Which are causes and which are effects may not yet be known, but their mutually reinforcing impacts are apparent' (P 99)

Environmental forces, motivation, and other developmental factors interact wi;h and contribute to the-individual's need structure which is likely to affect his/her behavior (e.w., Erikson 1968, Kuhlen 1989, Kutner et al. 1970, Pressey and Kuhlen 1957, Riley and Foner 1968, Rosow 1971, Young 1966). Looft (1973) identifies two paradigms or general approaches to he study of human nature whose basic premises are at odds: the mechanistic and the organismic. The former assumes humans to be reactive creatures and the latter assumes an active, initialing organism. Skinnerian theory and Piagetian theory, respectively, are exemplars. The belief of some (e.g. Overton and Reese 1973) that the two positions have different truth criteria is considered by Looft to render them irreconcilable. Others, however, (e.g. Lerner 1978, Reigel 1975 and 1976) modify this view of unbridgeable, irreconcilable paradigms by suggesting they may constitute a thesis and antithesis awaiting a dialectical thesis. This would require conceptual compromises between the organismic orientation and the mechanistic perspective. A dialectical view is based on the concept of the contradiction of opposites (thesis and antithesis) and their continual resolution (synthesis). Thus, one would conceive of epigenesis as probabilistic with nature (maturation) in dynamic interaction with nurture (experience) to produce developmental change differently according to the quality and timing of interactions (Schneirlia 1957). The two views are parallel to those of cognitive development and social learning, which are often incorporated into broader models of socialization (Riley et. al 1969, Rosow 1974, Moschis ar,d Churchill 1978). Table 1 shows the confrontation of model assumptions along with those found in the general model of socialization.

Scholars subscribing to the organismic model view development as internal to the organism, in contrast with the mechanistically oriented, who assume that the organism changes primarily in response to changes in its environment. The socialization model sees the two as interactive and interdependent, with both qualitative and quantitative changes (Reigel 1975 and 1976). The organismic view holds that later developmental changes reflect continuations of processes whose directions and quality can be described by quantitative increases of elements present at earlier stages (continuity), whereas the mechanistic view acknowledges that behavior in later stages of development is new and qualitatively different from that in an earlier period (discontinuity). Because there is neither the considerable magnitude of change nor the universal character of change observable in adult years as in childhood, Flavell (1970) argued that changes during adult years lack a biological growth process that lends to childhood changes their inevitability, magnitude, and directionality with species uniformity and irreversibility. However, as Dimmick, McCain and Bolton (1979) point out, the biological and physical development of individuals "must be taken into account, especially at the extremes of the life cycle" (p. 13). Werner (1957) states an orthogenetic principle: "Whenever development occurs it proceeds from a state of relative globality and lack of differentiation to a state of increasing differentiation, articulation, and hierarchic integration" (in Lerner 1978, p. 126). Whether the course of developmental change is common to all human beings or whether each person follows a unique developmental pathway involves the issue of cultural and subcultural differences. All people are alike in some respects due to the existence of certain biologically endowed personality determinants that are universal to the species; some people are like others due to memberships in certain statuses (culture, ethnicity, gender, vocation); and in some ways, each person is unique because of genetic composition and unique experiential encounters (Kluckhohn and Murray 1949). The socialization model is compatible with all thee views as an eclectic approach toward understanding cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors and is a synthesis of the mechanistic and organismic views.



Finally, significance of chronological age is different in the two opposing models. Many mechanistic scholars simply reduce age to time, proposing that the same general processes or mechanisms underlie behavioral change at ail ages; thus age itself, as a focus of attention is relegated to minor status, for time itself causes nothing" (Looft 1973, p. 35). The task is not to explain age differences but to account for change in terms of the determining mechanisms. In contrast, preformed organismic theories posit stages of development to be characterized by their chronological age boundaries. Age is intrinsic to a sequence of stages, and attempts are made to determine age-normed development functions.

Age as intrinsic to a model means that it is correlated with invariant, sequential changes and that implicit or explicit assumptions about the importance of maturation underlie the changed sequence. As extrinsic, however, age is a minor consideration since it is not inherent to the behaviors observed. Age is specifically considered in a socialization model; therefore, it is intrinsic. There are numerous indicators that "chronological age is, and most likely will continue to be, a basic dimension of developmental psychology" (Looft 1973, p. 35).

It is perhaps recognition of the preceding issues that has led several researchers in life span developmental psychology (e.g. Baltes 1979; Baltes and Labouvie 1973; Baltes, Reece, and Nesselroade 1977) and in sociology (e.g., Riley et al. 1969, Rosow 1974, Ahammer 1969) to conclude that the socialization approach to the study of the elderly is necessary due to the complex nature of aging. Therefore socialization, traditionally tied to studies of children (e.g., Piaget 1952), has not only been applied to studies of adults (e.g., Albrecht and Gift 1975), but to the elderly as well.

Rosow (1974) has described the transition to old age in terms of socialization, as have Riley and her associates in sociology (Riley and Foner 1958, Riley et al 1969!, and Baltes ar,d his associates in life span developmental psychology (Baltes 1978; Baltes and Labouvie 1973; Baltes. Reece and Nesselroade 1977). Dowd and others (1981) note that aging is not an automatic process whereby the older person is "fashioned from the whole cloth of the middle-age recruit" (p. 351). Rather, the transition to a new life space is more appropriately conceptualized as a series of interactions between the individual and others in his/her environment, and recognition is given to the idea that older people, like their younger counterparts, can be socialized (Dowd, Sission, and Kern 1981).

To view transition into old age in terms of socialization should not be unusual, given its traditionally close association with other well-known developmental stages (e.g., childhood, adolescence, adulthood) (Piaget 1952; Kohlberg 1969; Long, McCrary, and Ackerman 1980). Individuals proceeding through the middle and later yea.-s must continually learn to play new or altered roles and to relinquish old ones (Brim 1966). Moreover, with the secular trend toward increased longevity, more mature people will be called upon to play a variety of roles in the social structure (Riley et al. 1969). Thus, there is a continuous need for socialization in adulthood. Learning to respond to new demands does not stop at the end of childhood (Albrecht and Gift 1975).

It has long been noted by marketers that certain behavior patterns change over the life cycle (Engel, Kollat and Blackwell 1978; Wells and Gubar 1966). Retirement and old age are dramatized by the relinquishment of certain consumption categories (consumer durables, children's education expenses, etc.) and the assumption of others (health care, securities and investments, travel), within the context of the role shift. Similarly, as people grow older they tend to interact differently with various sources of consumer information (Bernherdt and Kinnear 1976; Hendricks and Hendricks 1977; Phillips and Sternthal 1977; Real, Anderson and Harrington 1980).

In order to keep pace with these changes, the elderly consumer must continuously learn, forming new attitudes and skills and changing old ones (Mauldin 1976). This suggests that the person's increasing experience with the marketplace, associated with increasing variety of needs for products and services, is likely to result in formation and change in his/her cognitive structure. Therefore, in much the same way socialization applies to consumer learning in a general context, it should also apply to the development and change of elderly consumers' cognitions, attitudes, and behavior toward marketing stimuli.


An implicit, long-range goal provided by the discussion to this point would be the building of an integrated model of elderly consumer behavior wherein the complementary processes of each tape of development would be explicated. As Cattell stated: "Most debators are sane enough to recognize that everything is partly environmental and partly hereditary in origin, the only issue is a quantitative one of how much each contributes" (Cattell 1975, p. 32).

According to some life span developmental researchers, a major concern is the need for methodologies that are specifically designed for the analysis of ontogenetic changes (Baltes 1979). A general conclusion about development-specific research is that existing methods often result in a situation where the phenomenon of development is either ruled out on an a priori methodological basis or only captured in an inadequate manner due to lack of development-sensitive methodology.

In addition to the obvious need for longitudinal methods, there have been efforts to advance cohort-sequential methodology (Riley et al. 1969; Rentz, Reynolds, and Stoudt 1981), methods using the socialization approach as an appropriate way to integrate various biological and socio-psychological factors involved in aging (Riley et al, 1969), and the use of structural equation models in identifying long-term casual chains (e.g., Kohn and Schooler 1977, Schaie 1979, Labouvie 1974). If one acknowledges that change is pervasive, that individuals live in a changing bicultural context and that the explanation of long-term processes is apt to involve complex historical paradigms, then development-specific methodology is crucial (Baltes, Reece and Nesselroade 1977). A Russian proverb quote I by Solzhenitsyn (1973) illustrates the dilemma faced by researchers attempting explanations of the elderly's cognitions, attitudes and behavior: "Dwell on the past and you will lose one eye....Forget the past and you'll lose both eves" (p.x.) One can choose either the development of tedious and complex models or procedural simplicity by which "we may be more productive for the moment and thereby own more of the present but less of the future" (Baltes, 1979, p. 274).

The socialization framework considers antecedent-consequent relationships mediated by socialization processes (McLeod and O'Keefe, 1972) and includes both the "nature" and "nurture" aspects required by a dialectical model (Riegel 1975 and 1976). Figure 1 shows a conceptual model of consumer socialization, proposed and tested by Moschis and Churchill (1978) using adolescent respondents, and the proposition is made that this model can be applied to the study of the elderly consumer, and even to consumer behavior in general (Moschis 1987).

The socialization approach would be particularly intriguing for consumer research on the elderly because it specifically considers the structure md content of learning and how it changes over time (Brim 1966). Recent reviews of consumer socialization, that is, the process by which people acquire skills, knowledge and attitudes relevant to their effective functioning as consumers in the marketplace (Moschis 1981, 1987, Moschis and Smith 1985b) suggest that this approach might prove useful in studying the elderly consumer, and some preliminary investigations in this area have been made (Smith and Moschis 1985; Smith, Moschis, and Moore 1981, 1982, 1985).


While no single set of theories and concepts has been agreed upon by socialization researchers to guide research in the area of consumer socialization, a rough blue print does exist outlining the main types of variables that should be included in a model of socialization in general (McLeod and O'Keefe 1972) and consumer socialization in particular (Moschis and Churchill 1978, Ward 1975). Specifically, the model uses age or life cycle as an index of maturation, while social structural variables (e.g., sex, social class, race) are used to place an individual in his/her social environment. The socialization processes incorporate both sources of information, usually referred to as "socialization agents," and the type of learning process (modeling, reinforcement, and social interaction) actually operating. Generally, socialization processes are conceived as having direct influence on criterion variables, while the influence of antecedent variables (age and social structural variables) can be both direct and indirect by their impact upon socialization processes (e.g., Moschis and Churchill 1978; Moschis and Moore 1979). The influence of socialization processes and social structural factors are likely to differ over the person's life cycle (Moschis 1987).

Antecedent Variables

Theory and research suggest two important antecedent variables in the consumer socialization of older adults: age and sex. While other variables such as social class are likely to be important, their effects may not bc unique to consumer socialization at this stage in the life cycle. Rather, differences in consumer socialization due to such other factors are likely to be noted at earlier stages in life and remain the same in later years (Moschis 1937).

Age. While the use of chronological age for classifying an individual as an older adult is open to debate (Roedder-John and Cole 1986, Moschis 1937), several researchers prefer to use sixty-five as he cut off point for old age. However, because many cognitive orientations toward old age begin to form as individuals approach retirement, several researchers use fifty-five as a cut off point. Consumer behavior among older adults, as in other age groups, differs in two important ways: first, it is different from the consumer behavior of younger adults; second, it differs across age groups of older individuals. Research on the consumer behavior of the older adults has found differences not only between younger adults (under 55) and older adults, but also within age groups of the latter, especially between the 55-64 and the 65 and over age groups (e.g., Lumpkin, Greenberg, and Goldstucker 1985; Smith 1982). However, specific subgroups are not addressed because they are not consistently acknowledged in developmental studies (cf. Roedder-John and Cole 1986). Instead, aging is viewed as a continuous developmental process.

Sex. Developmental and socio-psychological theories suggest that sex differences are important in the aging process. It has been suggested, for example, that sex differences in elderly friendship patterns may represent a stronger effect on outcomes than cohort differences (Baltes 1978). Neugarten (1972) suggests that sex differences may diminish with age due to a variety of biological and sociological factors, while Sherman and Schiffman (1984) present theoretical underpinnings and relevant data on age-gender differences.

Socialization Processes

In later years the importance of some socialization agents may diminish while that of others, including new ones, may increase. For example, social institutions like clubs and senior citizen centers are likely to become important agents for the aged person in much the same manner that school is for young people. In fact, a study by Burton and Hennon (1980) found senior citizen centers to be the third most preferred source of consumer information, after television and newspapers, even though their importance is likely to vary by social structural factors such as residence status. As individuals grow older they experience role attrition-through retirement, children leaving home, death of friends or spouse--their life space contracts, and there is less involvement with others. Thus, there is a decrease in interaction with informal information sources (family, co-workers, e[c.) and a compensation increase in interaction with formal information sources (television, newspaper, etc.).

Mass media help older persons compensate for other kinds of lo,s-financial, physical or social - and they provide a socially acceptable substitution for previous activities (Young 1979). In general, older persons tend to use less radio but they are heavier users of newspapers and television than younger groups. In particular, there appears to be a married increase in exposure to newspapers and television past the age of 60 which declines after the age of 70 (2. ... Real et al. 1980). Interestingly, the motives for media use also seem to change with age. Starting at about age 60, older people use the mass media for information more than entertainment purposes (Bernhardt and Kinnear 1976, Morrison 1979, Phillips and Sternthal 1977, Schramm 1969).

Although the influence of informal socialization agents is likely to decline at later stages in life, these sources of information still might play an important role in the socialization of the older adult. In late life socialization, however, major modifications of the familiar early learning model must be made. One is the focus on reciprocal communications between parent and offspring that may play a part in socializing the parent during his or her later years (Riley et a]. 1969). Older people in this country see or speak with their child(ren) an average of once a week and prefer to remain close (Lipman 1961). Thus, there appears to be ample opportunity for parents to learn from their offspring. Studies have found relatives to be important sources of consumer information for the elderly (Klippel and Sweeney 1974. Schiffman 1971). The child's influence on parental consumer socialization and consumer behavior is suggested in a study examining the decision making process of elderly persons regarding entering a nursing home. The study found significant participation by relatives in the decision making process (Baumgarten, Rao, and Ring 1976).

Friends and neighbors are important sources of primary relationships in later life; they also provide help and contact with the outside world (Atchley 1972). Rosow (1970, 1974) identifies peers and organized groups as agents of change in elderly socialization. The elderly's learning of appropriate behavior may occur through interaction with peers (Ahammer 1969). Klippel and Sweeney (1974) identified friends and neighbors as specific information sources for older consumers, and so did Schiffman (1972a), who used level of social interaction as an explanatory variable for the degree of perceived risk in purchasing a new product.


When viewed from a socialization perspective, consumer behavior of older adults refers to those aspects which are likely to develop or change in this particular stage in the life cycle. As Ward (1975) noted, outcomes of consumer socialization are neither specific nor invariant. While several patterns of consumer behavior acquired earlier in life are likely to change little in later years, the focus in the socialization of older adults is upon those skills, attitudes and behaviors that undergo formation and change (Riley et al. 1969). Although research is far from adequate to suggest every possible aspect of the older person's consumer behavior which is likely to change with aging, the available data presented justify changes that might occur with respect to consumer role perceptions, information processing, preferences for products and brands, including the processes leading to them, and (dis)satisfaction with marketing stimuli and processes.

Consumer Role Perceptions. The consumer role is likely to change significantly for the aging individual (Maudlin 1976). One study found the elderly's perception of their efficiency as consumers in the marketplace -- i.e., consumer-role perceptions to decline with age (Smith, Moschis, and Moore 1987). Research also suggests that older people may lack adequate socialization into roles assumed in late. Life. For example, government and proprietary investigations have found older adults to have inaccurate perceptions of their consumer role such as awareness of unfair practices and understanding of multiple medication interactions.

Age may also affect perceptions related o family decisions. Specifically advancing age may have what Sherman and Schiffman (1984) cal' :rn "equalizing effect"--i.e., men's life situation deteriorates at a more rapid rate than is the case for aging women, resulting in mate-female equalities which were absent during mid-life. Traditional sex-role boundaries may gradually fade due to the reduction of differences between roles and the sharing of household chores (Lipman 1961). The result is that in terms of decision-making, there is more egalitarianism (Lipman 1961, Neugarten 19,2). In two studies, for example, age was positively related to egalitarian sex-role perceptions among the elderly (Smith and Moschis 1985, Smith et al. 1982).

Information Processing. The elderly have been reported to process information less efficiently than younger people, requiring more time, slower pacing of stimuli, and less distracting influences (Phillips and Sternthal 1977, Roedder-John and Cole 1986). Such a deficiency in information processing capabilities may explain the elderly's greater susceptibility to advertising. The effect of advertising in general has been found to have a significant impact on the consumer behavior of the elderly (French and Crask 1977).

Another age decrement in consumption problem-solving situations concerns data integration. For aging persons a great deal of information gathered about the purchase can not be recalled, creating conditions for reluctancy to gather, and therefore process, newly gathered information. Elderly consumers were found to make less than average use of open-code dating, product components, warnings, nutritional labeling and unit pricing because this information is hard for them to read or comprehend (Bearden, Mason, and Smith 1979; Reinecke 1975; Silvenus 1979).

Product Selection. General consumption patterns are closely tied to the person's need structure which is often the result of changes in stages of the life cycle so that specific products are likely to enjoy various levels of demand depending upon the age of the older person (Gilson 1982). Compared to younger people, older consumers use fewer attributes to evaluate products. Older people were found to make less use of informational aids such as open-code dating and nutritional labeling (Schewe 1985), but more use of general attributes such as brand name and store reputation (Martin 1975, Lumpkin et al. 1985).

(Dis)satisfaction and Complaining. Although older consumers recognize shabby practices readily, they tend to avoid direct action to correct the wrong. Work by Zaltman, Srivastava. and Deshpande (1978) and Bernhardt (1981) found that older consumers were less aware of unfair practices end were less likely to complain than younger consumers. Rather, they usually resolve the problem indirectly by shopping elsewhere in the future (Bernhardt 1981, McMahon 1976).


The preceding discussion has indicated that a consumer socialization approach to the study of elderly consumers may be an ideal way to incorporate both the developmental ("nature") and environmental ("nurture") effects on their consumer behavior in a dialectal model. By considering antecedent variables, socialization processes (agent plus type of learning), and certain outcomes of consumer socialization, various theories developed to understand the ageing person can be integrated and synthesized. This offers a rich method of testing many relationships and validating previous findings. Thus many opportunities would exist for future studies to explore new relationships and/or re-examine previous empirical findings guided by a conceptual framework which could be further supported or modified.


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Ruth Belk Smith, University of Balitmore
George P. Moschis, Georgia State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16 | 1989

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