Is An Oldie A Goodie?

How people evaluate older vs. newer might surprise you.

How do you evaluate a policy, a painting or a piece of chocolate? What makes you decide the "best" tree or treatment? Probably not what you think, reveals an interesting scientific study. Compare your own behavior to these results.

Older is better, says University of Arkansas psychologist Scott Eidelman. Longevity operates like a commonsense rule of thumb that people apply, often unconsciously, when evaluating the value of something.

The length of time something has been established seems to serve as a cue to its goodness. This is revealed in a series of experiments. The longer a policy, medical practice, painting, tree or consumer good was said to exist, the more favorably it was evaluated, say researchers Eidelman, Jennifer Pattershall and Christian S. Crandall.

Five experiments, same result

The researchers designed five studies to test whether people favored longevity in evaluating things or whether possible alternative explanations operated.

Study 1: Participants evaluated two possible university degree requirements, The longer they believed one requirement or the other had been in place, the more positively participants rated it. Loss aversion could be a factor. Preference for the status quo might be due to what people could lose by making a change instead of how much they like what has already been established.

Study 2 removed choice. Participants read four descriptions of acupuncture that differed only in how long the treatment was said to be in use. The older the acupuncture practice, the higher participants rated it. Of course, participants may have assumed the oldest acupuncture had withstood time and competition because it is better.

The next studies tested whether older-is-better prevailed when logical considerations are removed.

Study 3 had participants evaluate a painting. The older they believed it to be, the more they judged it pleasing and enjoyable to look at.

Study 4 evaluated the aesthetic value of a live oak tree, and the older the tree was purported to be, the more people liked its looks.

But, longevity might not be the direct explanation. The researchers wrote, "People may infer from time in existence that others evaluate the object or practice positively. The aesthetic judgments of participants in Studies 3 and 4 might be considered a reasoned position if they inferred that the age of the tree or painting was due to others' perceptions of quality."

In Study 5, participants were asked to rate the taste of chocolate. Once again, participants chose as best the chocolate item they were told has been on the market longest. Researchers asked participants why, and top reasons were taste, texture and sweetness, and smell. No one spontaneously said that time on the market or the preferences of others is a reason to rate the chocolate highly. "This pattern of data suggests that reasoning and evaluation are separate and independent processes in this context," said the researchers.

Tradition trumps reality?

The non-logical assumption that older is better has social implications, the researchers note: "These findings speak to the lure of tradition. From products to politicians, companies to cultures, assumptions of goodness from time in existence abound. Because longevity promotes its own favorability, it may confer legitimacy on otherwise undesirable practices, such as torture. It may also add another hurdle to overcome on the road toward social change. Overcoming the status quo is tricky, but overcoming a time-honored tradition is substantially more difficult."

Full report:

It would be interesting to know whether participants in the study were older. Older people tend to think older things are better.