A study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology uncovered a novel way to motivate people toward prosocial action. A series of studies found that increasing people’s subjective age motivates them to contribute more to the greater good of others.
While charitable organizations often depend on donations from the public to continue their operations, garnering such support can be tricky. This is likely because people tend to be more inclined to help those who are close to them, rather than people they do not know. Study authors Jen H. Park and colleagues wanted to explore one factor that may lead people to be more willing to give to others — older age.
There exists a general societal consensus that older people have a greater responsibility to society. Although, as Park and colleagues point out, people’s actual age is surprisingly out of sync with how old they feel. The authors, therefore, focused on subjective age, proposing that leading people to feel older should increase their sense of responsibility to the common good and drive them to contribute more to others.
An initial three studies established the effect that priming people to compare themselves to someone younger than them increases how old they feel. Next, several studies explored whether increasing a person’s subjective age can push them toward helping others. The researchers focused on the non-elderly, between the ages of 18 and 60.
One study manipulated participants’ subjective age by asking them to imagine having an interaction with either a younger person, (thus priming them to feel older) or an older person. Participants then viewed an advertisement showcasing an organization that provides guide dogs for the blind. The researchers found that those who were primed to feel older reported a higher willingness to support the charity than those who were not. Moreover, actual age did not predict support for the charity.
An additional study extended these findings to show that people who were made to feel older were more willing to help the environment by contributing to park projects. Researchers also found evidence of a pathway for this effect. Those who were primed to feel older reported feeling greater responsibility to contribute to the greater good, which in turn led to a stronger willingness to help.
Finally, another experiment demonstrated that increasing subjects’ subjective age led them to give more to distant others, but not to those who are close to them. The study took to the field by giving spectators at a university sports game the opportunity to write thank you cards for loved ones or for university staff members. Being primed to feel older led participants to write more cards for staff members but not more cards for close family members.
While society tends to look down on aging, these studies bring forth a positive side to being older. Feeling older motivates people to help others, and prosocial behavior is linked to increased well-being. “Feeling older or younger is a state of mind,” the authors discuss, “and unlike many age-related stereotypes, feeling older can actually have positive implications for society as a whole.”
Park and colleagues express that their study offers important insight for marketing campaigns, by showing that subjective age among the non-elderly can be influenced. “This means that rather than measuring demographic variables and segmenting the market based on these fixed factors, marketers can potentially nudge people to move from one segment to another,” the researchers say. “By shifting the reference point in age comparisons through social surroundings, interactions, or survey scales, companies and prosocial organizations can alter people’s subjective age, leading to fundamentally different choices and behaviors.”
The study, “Subjective Age and the Greater Good”, was authored by Jen H. Park, Szu‐chi Huang, Bella Rozenkrants, and Daniella Kupor.