Jun 7, 2006, 1:03 PM
Post #1 of 1
By Mike Sullivan
50-Plus Communications Consulting
The aging process makes us different. Our ability to hear and understand undergoes significant changes with age. We need to understand and compensate for those changes with older adults.
As with vision and hearing, the ability to process information decreases with age. The ability to process information accurately, completely, and quickly peaks in the early 20s and then declines. At age 40, on average, 50% of the inborn level of fluid intelligence -- our ability to quickly and accurately process information -- has disappeared; by age 60, on average, about 75% is gone.
Unlike vision and hearing, however, there is a second form of intelligence: crystallized intelligence. That is our life knowledge -- what we know. The ability to use that form of intelligence does not decrease with age. Moreover, we know more with each passing year. In effect, with age, people compensate for the loss of fluid intelligence by substituting crystallized intelligence – experience.
To understand the difference between fluid and crystallized intelligence, consider this analogy:
If you were to be asked what is 2 plus 2, you would immediately know the answer, virtually without conscious thought; that is crystallized intelligence. On the other hand, if you were asked what are 231 multiplied by 963, most people would not immediately know the answer; they would have to process the information consciously in order to arrive at an answer. That is fluid intelligence and with age, starting for many people in their mid-40s, they would make errors in processing and, therefore, often arrive at the wrong answer.
Information when it’s complicated is a lot like math in that a fair amount of fluid intelligence is called for to process the input. With age, that level of fluid intelligence is no longer easily available to many people. Therefore, if they are required to use fluid intelligence to understand complex information they are likely to make errors in processing and:
Presenting Your Recommendations
- Not completely take in what is said
- Not accurately understand what is said
- Give up trying to understand because they cannot process the information quickly enough; it is all too overwhelming and goes by too fast
Overcoming communications barriers caused by the decline of fluid intelligence is critical to getting recommendations accepted. Prospects will resist making a decision unless they get enough information. “Enough” is defined in two ways: by quantity and the kind of information the client wants.
Think about the information requirement like this:
- People need different amounts of information to feel comfortable making decisions. Some people need a glass and others need a gallon. Some older people want to know every conceivable detail and others simply want top line information. You have to figure out how much someone needs.
- People need different kinds of information. Business people typically want to give older people lots of numbers. Older individuals generally don’t want very many numbers because they require fluid intelligence to process. Older people typically need other kinds of information.
The solution to the decline of fluid intelligence among aging people is to aid them in the use of their crystallized intelligence -- their experience -- as it applies to the issue under discussion.
The reason that will work can be seen in this analogy:
At age 17 an individual’s ability to process new information accurately, completely and quickly is about at the peak. At age 60 that capability is very, very low. Yet, 17 year-olds have many more accidents driving automobiles than do 60 year-olds. Why?
The answer, of course, is experience. For the 17 year-old, every potentially dangerous situation is new. He has to think about it and then react. For the 60 year-old, every potentially dangerous situation has been seen many times over. He doesn’t have to think about it; he can just react based on his experience, which has been hard-wired into his central nervous system.
Similarly, an aging individual who uses his life experience will usually be able to make a good decision. But, that often requires the business person help him connect that experience with the subject at hand.
How the Brain Makes Decisions
Let’s look at the financial service industry which often uses complex information. Although economic theory says that people are efficient, rational beings who act in their own self-interest and make financial decisions based on reason (fluid intelligence), not emotion, the truth is quite different.
In making financial decisions, people are influenced by gut feelings and intuitions. Gut feelings and intuitions are a function of experience (crystallized intelligence). They are a very efficient shortcut to a decision.
"Emotions and the response tendencies that go with them help guide our reactions to the world," Dr. Galen V. Bodenhausen, director of the social psychology program at Northwestern University, said. "Rational thought is great in a lot of circumstances where you have time and latitude to do it. But emotions provide rapid, immediate guidance, a gut reaction."1
In the typical sales situation, older customers do not have the time and latitude for rational thought. They are in front of you and you want a decision on your recommendation. That is especially true with older adults who, because of the decline in fluid intelligence, must take longer to process information and think through what you have said.
Even if the older person goes home and thinks about the recommendation it is likely he will have difficulty following the reasoning. Serious thinking is hard work. It requires large amounts of physiological energy. More likely than not, older adults will run out of energy before they have completely and thoroughly analyzed the recommendation.
The result: older people make decisions largely on the basis of intuition and gut reaction.
Researchers scanning the brains of people as they make difficult decisions are beginning to understand how fluctuations in neurons and brain chemicals drive those decisions. In making predictions about outcomes, such as whether a recommended solution is going to be good or not, neural systems tap into gut feelings and emotions; comparing what we know from the past with what is happening right now.
A Function of Our Past Experiences
The brain needs to compare and evaluate what is happening right now along with the perceived needs of others so that it can make choices. It does so by assigning relative value to everything that happens. Instead of considering the main points you are presenting, the brain relies on the firing rates of a number of neurotransmitters. The chemicals, like dopamine, transmit nerve impulses. Whether it is money or a delicious meal, dopamine circuits are activated to different degrees. The amount an individual produces in response to any individual reward is a function of past experience and biology.
Specific brain structures and neurotransmitter systems go into action before a person is conscious of having made a decision. In a very real sense, decisions are made unconsciously and then justified by reason or by the articulation of experience. In other words, brain research tells us that gut decisions are in fact well-rooted in the individual’s experience and not simply a passing, irrational, response.
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1 New York Times, April 20, 2004
Michael P. Sullivan is founder of 50-Plus Communications Consulting and a well-known and highly regarded public speaker on financial services and the aging population.
He is co-author of the book 101 Easy Ways to Increase Business with Boomerplus Clients!, has worked as an independent consultant focusing on helping banks to understand the aging market, and served as Vice President, Corporate Communications, First Union National Bank, Charlotte, N.C.
He is the Chairman of the Council on Aging for Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.
(This post was edited by MichaelSullivan on Jun 7, 2006, 2:28 PM)