Friday, May 20, 2022

Just Emphasize the Gist for Older Readers

Ethical professionals provide to elderly prospects written information when asking those prospects to complete challenging decisions. To help ensure these prospects understand the information, format the text in accord with the distinctive ways older adults read: They skip words and backtrack. It takes them longer to comprehend text than when they were younger. And to a greater extent than for younger adults, they seek the gist—the essential meaning—and attend less to the details. Elderly decision makers are risky readers.
     Cornell University researchers explored how changing the format of information influences younger and older adults’ decision making. Study participants were assigned to choose among options for health insurance and prescription drug insurance plans by using information about attributes of the options. For one of the decisions, the information was presented in a gist format (“Extremely Poor” to “Extremely Good” on the attribute), and for the other, in a verbatim format (exact numbers such as prices and durations).
     The mean average age of the younger adult participants was 26 years and of the older adult participants, 71 years. In response to my email inquiry about the findings to the lead researcher, Julia Nolte, she wrote, “The younger adults sampled a significantly higher proportion of unique/novel information when the information was presented in a verbatim format. In contrast, older adults reviewed a higher total amount of information when the information was presented in a gist format. Older adults also voiced stronger subjective preferences for receiving gist-style information and demonstrated a preference for gist processing.” This was in the face of the finding that decision satisfaction was lower when participants reviewed gist information than when participants reviewed verbatim information.
     In well-intentioned efforts to help the elderly deal with comprehension difficulties, you might present bullet points summarizing what you’ve already written or you might use a diagram to depict certain points. These aids could be useful, and they might be necessary for legal defensibility of your services. However, these measures do not substitute for a highlighted statement of the gist. In fact, an abundance of repetition can impede comprehension, trapping the elderly reader in a web of confusing qualifiers.
     Which brings to mind that there’s a qualifier in this research area: Skipping words occurs more often among elderly adults who read English text than among elderly adults who read Chinese characters. This is attributed to the Chinese characters taking longer to decode.

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