affective design

Exploring Emotional Design

Older People Are Less Affected By Unpleasant Info?

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

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    3 Comments so far

    1. Marco van Hout January 31st, 2007 9:43 am

      Hi Trevor,
      I am not quite sure if I see your point here. In the Reuters article, it seems that they mainly focus on bad information in terms of “not letting bad news get you down or affect you”. To me this seems to evolve out of “life experience” (older adults always seem more relaxed with changes or news, either good or bad), which is more related to a whole cognitive process than to the basic “startle” emotion they get when they would hear an alarm. In that case, I don’t think that older adults are less likely to put on their seatbelt because the warning sound doesn’t remind or affect them enough.
      Therefore, I only think we would need to make those sounds louder when we would consider their hearing ability getting less.

    2. trevvg January 31st, 2007 10:40 am

      You make a good point Marco. I was also considering that older folks might be less likely to respond to unpleasant info based purely on life experience, which is why I question these findings to some extent. I’ve also met older people who seem to be filled with fear. It seems to have something to do with the amount of control they have over things in their lives, but that’s an opinion and I have no research to back it up.

      I think my purpose here was to point out that negative emotional affect does have value, and is an important consideration in design. People tend to see negative affect as something to be avoided, but it can be useful if used properly. Maybe my mistake was mentioning alarm noises along with noises that have a negative character, like the seatbelt noise, which is not so much designed to alarm as it is to irritate through repetition.

    3. Marco van Hout February 1st, 2007 1:40 am

      I agree with you Trevor, negative emotional affect does have value in design and it is often a factor that is overshadowed by the idea that “designing for emotion” is only about letting people smile. It can have a role in warning people, pointing people in the right direction, etc.
      I don’t think you mentioning alarm noises that have a negative character was a mistake. I just think that the link between the research in the Reuters article and the point you made (which in principal was a good point :)) was a bit off track.

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