Why do the elderly seem more opposed to new popular music?


When I was a teenager, my dad wasn’t terribly interested in the music I liked.

To him, it just sounded like “a lot of noise,” while he regularly referred to the music he listened to as “beautiful.”.

This attitude persisted throughout his life. Even when he was in his 80s, he once turned to me during a TV commercial featuring a 50-year-old Beatles tune and said, “You know, I just don’t like today’s music.”

It turns out that my father isn’t alone.

As I’ve grown older, I’ll often hear people my age say things like “they just don’t make good music like they used to.”

Why does this happen?

Luckily, my background as a psychologist has given me some insights into this puzzle.

We know that musical tastes begin to crystallize as early as age 13 or 14.

By the time we’re in our early 20s, these tastes get locked into place pretty firmly.

In fact, studies have found that by the time we turn 33, most of us have stopped listening to new music. Meanwhile, popular songs released when you’re in your early teens are likely to remain quite popular among your age group for the rest of your life.

There could be a biological explanation for this.

There’s evidence that the brain’s ability to make subtle distinctions between different chords, rhythms and melodies gets worse with age.

So to older people, newer, less familiar songs might all “sound the same.”

But I believe there are some simpler reasons for older people’s aversion to newer music.

One of the most researched laws of social psychology is something called the “mere exposure effect.” 

In a nutshell, it means that the more we’re exposed to something, the more we tend to like it.

This happens with people we know, the advertisements we see and, yes, the songs we listen to.

When you’re in your early teens, you probably spend a fair amount of time listening to music or watching music videos. Your favorite songs and artists become familiar, comforting parts of your routine.

For many people over 30, job and family obligations increase, so there’s less time to spend discovering new music.

Instead, many will simply listen to old, familiar favorites from that period of their lives when they had more free time.

Of course, those teen years weren’t necessarily carefree.

They’re famously confusing, which is why so many TV shows and movies – from “Glee” to “Love, Simon” to “Eighth Grade” – revolve around the high school turmoil.

For many older people, today’s music goes in one ear and out the other.

Psychology research has shown that the emotions that we experience as teens seem more intense than those that comes later. We also know that intense emotions are associated with stronger memories and preferences.

All of this might explain why the songs we listen to during this period become so memorable and beloved.

So there’s nothing wrong with your parents because they don’t like your music. In a way, it’s all part of the natural order of things.

At the same time, I can say from personal experience that I developed a fondness for the music I heard my own children play when they were teenagers.

So it’s certainly not impossible to get your parents on board with Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X.

The mere exposure phenomenon refers to improvement of one’s attitude toward an a priori neutral stimulus after its repeated exposure.

The extent to which such a phenomenon influences evaluation of a priori emotional stimuli remains under-investigated.

Here we investigated this question by presenting participants with different odors varying in a priori pleasantness during different sessions spaced over time.

articipants were requested to report each odor’s pleasantness, intensity, and familiarity. As expected, participants became more familiar with all stimuli after the repetition procedure. However, while neutral and mildly pleasant odors showed an increase in pleasantness ratings, unpleasant and very pleasant odors remained unaffected.

Correlational analyses revealed an inverse U-shape between the magnitude of the mere exposure effect and the initial pleasantness of the odor.

Consequently, the initial pleasantness of the stimuli appears to modulate the impact of repeated exposures on an individual’s attitude.

These data underline the limits of mere exposure effect and are discussed in light of the biological relevance of odors for individual survival.


More than 40 years ago, Zajonc (1968) presented his seminal work showing that “repeated, unreinforced exposures produce an enhancement in affect toward a stimulus” (p. 1).

Since then, this mere exposure effect has become one of the most inspiring and studied phenomena in psychology (Bornstein, 1989Moreland and Topolinski, 2010).

In the classical paradigm used to investigate the mere exposure effect, participants are presented with a series of stimuli at different exposure frequencies within a limited time window.

At a certain point, they are requested to rate their preference toward the stimuli. Experimental manipulations such as stimulus type, duration, presentation frequency, and type of ratings, as well as personality and individual variables, have been extensively studied (see Bornstein, 1989, for a review).

A robust phenomenon, the mere exposure effect has been replicated in hundreds of experiments using visual, auditory (Bornstein, 1989), olfactory (e.g., Prescott et al., 2008), and recently, haptic stimuli (Jakesch and Carbon, 2012).

This effect has been found even when stimuli are presented subliminally (e.g., Bornstein and D’Agostino, 1992). Hence, the mere exposure effect seems to impact any situation during which one is confronted with stimulus repetitions.

It is consequently thought to constitute a key element in preference acquisition (e.g., Balogh and Porter, 1986Schaal et al., 2000).

The vast majority of data on the mere exposure effect have been collected on meaningless neutral visual stimuli. In Zajonc’s (1968) princeps study, for example, the subjects did not usually have “a prior preference for the stimulus exposed” (p. 23). The extent to which exposure could influence preferences or hedonic ratings of a priori emotional stimuli has rarely been investigated.

This is surprising, given that encountering neutral1 stimuli could constitute the exception, rather than the norm, in daily life. Studies examining the mere exposure effect in relation to a priori valenced stimuli are scarce: Although they all indicate that the initial pleasantness of a stimulus is an important variable to consider, the impact of the mere exposure effect ranges from canceling out preferences to strengthening them.

For instance, Schellenberg et al. (2008) did not find any differential exposure influence on pleasantness evaluation of happy and sad musical pieces. Grush (1976) suggested that a priori pleasant, meaningful words became more pleasant after repeated exposures whereas a priori unpleasant words became more unpleasant.

Evidence also suggests that exposure can improve hedonic evaluations of initially disliked harmless and caged living snakes (Litvak, 1969) and can reduce the dislike of angry faces (Young and Claypool, 2010). Using a modified prisoner’s dilemma, Swap (1977) reported observing more important exposure effects (i.e., increases in interpersonal reported attraction) for rewarding partners than for punishing partners.

In the olfactory domain and with correlational approaches, several authors have described an increase in the reported pleasantness of odors with their familiarity (e.g., Engen and Ross, 1973Lawless and Cain, 1975Ayabe-Kanamura et al., 1998Distel et al., 1999Royet et al., 1999Bensafi et al., 2002Sulmont et al., 2002).

However, Delplanque et al. (2008) showed that the correlation between pleasantness and familiarity is much more important for pleasant odors than for unpleasant ones (correlations were not significant for malodors).

Similar results were since obtained with various set of odorants across the world (Ferdenzi et al., 2013).

These results suggest that malodors are resistant to pleasantness increases that could be expected from exposure. The authors underlined the adaptive advantage of unpleasant odor processing in allowing individuals to avoid, as much as possible, the influence of exposure to the odorant (i.e., increasing familiarity) in order to maintain negative attitudes toward a potentially dangerous stimulation.

Investigating the mere exposure effect with a priori valenced stimuli may appear to be challenging since many studies used meaningless stimuli, e.g., geometric abstract shapes that are not valenced.

In visual or auditory modalities, valenced stimuli are likely to be explicitly meaningful, as they are subjected to many regulations and high-level interpretations that could influence the mere exposure effect. In a classic review of mere exposure studies, Bornstein (1989, p. 275) highlighted “that stimulus recognition may actually inhibit the exposure effect.” Olfactory stimuli are putative perfect candidates in that sense, since their pleasantness is thought to be the major representation of human odorant perception (Yeshurun and Sobel, 2010) and humans do not perform well in explicit odor recognition (Issanchou et al., 2002Stevenson, 2009).

Not only are studies investigating the mere exposure effect in relation to the a priori valence of stimuli scarce, but they are mainly correlational, which considerably narrows their explanatory power.

They cannot demonstrate that a change in familiarity, due to exposure, causes a change in pleasantness. Moreover, they cannot prove that those putative changes are different along the pleasantness continuum.

In an attempt to fill this gap, the aim of the present experiment was to investigate the impact of the initial pleasantness of stimulus on the mere exposure effect by directly manipulating exposure to unpleasant, neutral, and pleasant olfactory stimulations. More precisely, we implemented a familiarization procedure for six odorants that varied in pleasantness.

To avoid any confound between a mere exposure effect and habituation or desensitization effects (that are known to occur rapidly in olfaction; Cain and Johnson, 1978Comeno-Muniz and Cain, 1995), or affective habituation (Ferdenzi et al., 2014), we did not present the odorant intensively during one session. Rather, we organized six judgment sessions separated by at least 1 day. During one session, odorants were randomly presented and participants had to rate the pleasantness, the familiarity, and the intensity of each of them. Participants’ ability to recognize and label odors could not only influence their familiarity and pleasantness evaluations (Seo et al., 2008), but also the mere exposure effect itself (Bornstein, 1989).

In order to assess such potential confounds linked to odors recognition, we performed a free and cued odor recognition task at the end of the familiarization procedure. In sum, if unpleasant odors are more resistant to mere exposure effect, as a previous correlational study suggests (Delplanque et al., 2008Ferdenzi et al., 2013), we expected that changes in pleasantness ratings after repeated exposures would be less important for initially unpleasant odors than for initially neutral or pleasant ones.

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