Are Time & Age the Same?

How GOOGLE is capitalizing on the one of the biggest influences in decision making

In a recent conversation I had with Hal Hershfield, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business who researches the effects time perspectives have on decision making, I was struck by something he came to rather casually. The more I study time, he said, the more I come to think of time and age as the same concept.

His research often looks at decisions people make about themselves at other points in time. From this perspective, age is simply a convenient way to describe a particular point in time.

In my last post, I mentioned that all decisions are made within context. The words from my perspective have subtle connotative differences. “Time” tends to imply the more immediate. “You’re right on time!” Age tends to imply longer time periods. “I haven’t seen you in ages!”

For the purposes of Professor Hershfield’s research, the “time influence” almost always describes a comparison between points in time. Since we already described age a point in time, in the context of his research then “age” and “time” are the same.

But for the layperson, I think the distinction between the two is worth exploring in more detail.

Which is more influential in decision making: Age or Time?

From an Evolutionary Psychology perspective, within the Fundamental Motives Framework (Griskevicius & Kenrick, 2013) the concept of time takes two distinct and important forms.

  1. Life History Theory
  2. The Current Active Motivational State

Life History

“An evolutionary perspective highlights that organisms proceed through three distinct stages across the lifespan: (1) a somatic growth stage lasting from birth to puberty, (2) a mating stage lasting from puberty until parenthood, and (3) a parenting stage that (for humans) includes grand-parenting.” (Griskevicius & Kenrick, 2013)

The authors of the Fundamental Motives Framework posit that human behavior is largely guided by the furtherance of evolutionarily important motives ((1) evading physical harm, (2) avoiding disease, (3) making friends, (4) attaining status, (5) acquiring a mate, (6) keeping a mate, and (7) caring for family), all of which ultimately improve the odds of passing one’s genes to subsequent generations. Life History Theory is the recognition that as one ages, the relative importance of each of the fundamental motives shifts. A toddler doesn’t care at all about acquiring a mate, but is concerned with disease avoidance (cooties). As the relative weight of each of these motives shifts, important implications follow on judgment and decision making.

Marketing Implications

Marketers have been capitalizing on this idea for decades without any overt recognition of evolutionary roots. Life history manifests itself in ideas like demographics and psychographics. Market segmentation often occurs along life history lines. The demographic component is typically age and gender. People of a certain age are more likely to be at a certain life stage. As marketers have become more savvy, the inclusion of psychographic elements pinpoints life stage more precisely. Single females age 23-27 are likely to have different motives from new mothers in the same age category.

Current Motivational State

What’s particularly poignant for decision making is one’s current motive. Walking down a dark city street at night, one is significantly more likely to be concerned with avoiding danger than finding a mate. How one behaves depends on the motives which loom largest.

Hal Hershfield, while not taking an evolutionary perspective, acknowledges in his research the importance of one’s current mental state on decision making. Specifically, he finds that the degree to which one feels related to his future self can be influenced. Showing someone a computer projected image of himself in the future improves the sense of relatedness and impacts one’s willingness to save for the future (Hershfield et al., 2011).

Marketing Implications

2226178289_3f9556c08f_mGoogle was among the first to truly capitalize the marketing implications of immediate goals. Ads shown on Google are in direct response to keywords typed in search. In no small sense, when you complete a search on Google, you are explicitly telling the company what your current motive is. By targeting your current motive, Google has been the most successful in serving ads which get clicks.

But it doesn’t stop there. Facebook, with all its data on your interests and life history stage (age, children, marital status), has recently begun serving ads which target your most recent browsing history. This seems to imply that the current motivational state is more influential in decision making than life history, though I have seen no empirical evidence. It also lends credence to the notion that your goals can persist in the background, even if you’re not consciously aware of them, as shown in the landmark 2008 study “The Selfish Goal” (Bargh, Green, & Fitzsimmons, 2008). Even when you’ve stopped actively pursuing your goal by surfing around on Facebook, you’re still more likely to interact with ads relevant to it.

The most exciting implication for marketers is the notion of influence. The research of Hershfield and others give good examples of how one’s present mental state influences behavior, and how the present mental state can itself be influenced.

Photo Credit: Collin Key via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: manfrys via Compfight cc

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