In my book, Serving the Ageless Market (McGraw-Hill 1990) I went out on the proverbial limb: I said that as we age more mental activity is taken over by the right hemisphere of the brain. I found myself in that arboreal perch because A) no one had ever studied the matter and B) I am not a brain researcher.
If I were right, however, it would mean that in marketing to older customers marketers needed to make significant changes from how communicated with younger customers. If I were wrong – well, thankfully I wasn’t.
Research since 1990 has confirmed my claim about the shift toward the emotional, intuitive, holistic right brain.
The backstory on my conclusion: The name Kurt Goldstein is prominent in Maslow’s writings. Goldstein was a German neurologist (1879 – 1965). Contrary to common belief Goldstein , not Maslow, coined the term “self-actualization.” He used it in referring to brain-damaged soldiers who appeared to experience accelerated personality development to levels normally not reached by people until their later 50s and 60s. Goldstein said they self-actualized decades ahead of schedule.
Maslow drew on Goldstein in the development of his famous Hierarch y of Basic Human Needs, capping it off with self-actualization as the highest level of basic human needs.
Before coming across Goldstein’s name in Maslow’s writings, I had read about the work of American neurobiologist Roger Sperry. Sperry earned the Nobel prize for his studies of patients whose brain hemispheres had been surgically separated to prevent life threatening grand mal seizures. For the first time researchers were able to study the hemispheres separately in living human beings.
One day, while reading Maslow’s detailed description of self-actualizing personalities I was suddenly struck by the fact that Maslow’s list of attributes of self-actualizing personalities squared remarkably with Sperry’s description of specialty functions in the right brain. Since that day I have believed that research into the medical records of Goldstein’s patients would reveal that his self-actualizing patients had sustained left brain injuries in the battlefield. That would in many cases cause an increase mental activity in the right hemisphere to pick up the slack caused by the left brain’s injuries.
I became even surer of my conclusion about the rightward cerebral shift in later life when some years ago a friend who was in his early-30s suffered a terrible accident on his bike while pedaling to work one day. He suffered massive brain injuries that kept him into a coma for five months. Michael was a brilliant engineer who had been part of the team that developed the world’s first automated subway fare card system in the world in Washington, D.C.
The accident resulted in putting Michael on full disability, though the casual observer would see nothing pointing to that.
I was talking to Michael several years after the accident about how his life was unfolding. He began listing various things he could no longer do. It added up to the fact that the accident had dissolved the analytic abilities necessary to his work in engineering. But he went on to startle me with the statement, “I feel as though I grew much older as a result of the accident. I feel that I think like an old man must think.”
He elaborated. “I used to see the world in black and white. Now I see it in shades of gray.” Indeed I had observed the transition. He went on,” This is causing considerable problems between me and Jennifer. She still sees the world in black and white.”
“Michael, was your brain injury in the left hemisphere?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
All this gives rise to a seminal question: Is the later life shift into self-actualization a compensation for age onset deficits in the left hemisphere? Some researchers think so. One described the phenomenon as being like needing two hands to carry a heavy bucket of water in old age while one hand was quite enough earlier in life. However, I think he was wrong. But I do not believe the shift is necessarily compensatory. Instead, I believe it is a normal outcome of the human developmental process.
Not everyone attains the level of self-actualization. Reaching a higher level of maturation, according to Maslow, requires significant satisfaction in preceding levels. Thus if a person is still struggling to satisfy “love and belonging” needs (or higher up, “self-esteem and esteem from others”), he or she cannot reach the final and highest stage of development, self-actualization.
That is not to say that people lower down in Maslow’s famous hierarchy do not have self-actualization needs at their current level of development that cannot be satisfied. That’s a good thing for San Francisco-based boutique hotelier Chip Conley. He claims to have saved his company, Joie de Vivre, from bankruptcy during the dotcom crash of 2001 by focusing on meeting self-actualization needs of investors, employees and customers . He tells all about it in Peak: How Great Companies Get their Mojo from Maslow.
Marketers only achieve peak success by meeting customers’ needs in a big way. This being the case, and over half the population is now in the second half of life, marketers need to learn more about self-actualization needs and make connections with them in marketing communications.
But alas! I rarely see marketing communications directed to older audiences that addresses self-actualization needs. Presumably that’s because there is a pervasive lack of understanding of self-actualization in the marketing world. In my own little way I want to help remedy that.
In my next post I will delve into self-actualization in greater detail and its importance to marketers in communicating with consumers in the second half of life..