Reuters has an article about how older people are less affected by unpleasant information. This is an interesting finding, since it has previously been found that negative, unpleasant information is more motivating and captures more attention than positive information… As the article says, “older adults are less likely to be depressed and are less affected by negative or unpleasant information“. The article goes on to talk about how this could predispose older people to habits like risky gambling, since they are not scared of the possible unpleasant effects…
I have a few questions about the study methodology that is described in the article. First off, what age group qualifies as “older people”? Second, the researchers showed study participants photos of objects that are usually associated with negative responses (like dead animals) and positive responses (like ice cream). However, if the dead animal in the photo was an animal that the subject happened to dislike, the subject could conceivably have responded favorably. And what if the subject disliked ice cream? For now, I’ll assume that the article didn’t go into enough detail about the experiment and that proper controls were used.
Assuming the data is valid, how can this information be utilized to design better products and systems for older people, who are a growing demographic in countries all over the world? A common household item which utilizes negative emotional affect is a fire alarm. Fire alarms give off a loud, unpleasant sound that triggers an appropriate behaviour for the context of a burning building. Occupants are usually only too happy to comply by leaving the building.
Fire alarms are an extreme example, but negative affect is also used to notify the users of websites and products that something is amiss. Think of the noise in your vehicle that “reminds” you to put on your seatbelt, for example. The unpleasant noise is meant to convince you to comply with seatbelt laws. Similarly, error sounds in computer interfaces alert you to the fact that you have done something wrong.
Does this mean that some signals used for notifications and alarms need to be even louder and more unpleasant to get older people to comply? I may wait to see another study confirm this one before making any design decisions based on these findings.
For more on emotional affect, see:
2. The Influence of Emotional Affect