Academic journal article Human Factors

Comprehending Product Warning Information: Age-Related Effects and the Roles of Memory, Inferencing, and Knowledge

Academic journal article Human Factors

Comprehending Product Warning Information: Age-Related Effects and the Roles of Memory, Inferencing, and Knowledge

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Successful comprehension of warnings frequently requires an understanding of not only explicitly stated information but also information that may be implied. If a warning designer were to explicitly state every concept that needed to be communicated, the text would be overly repetitious, difficult to comprehend, and probably too long for the physical space for which it was designed. Many warnings attempt to convey a large amount of safety and instructional information in a small, physically constrained space (e.g., on a product label), requiring the reader to draw inferences about the warning's meaning. Product warning designers may leave out certain details, assuming people will use general and domain-specific knowledge to aid comprehension and make the correct inferences. Given the variety of hazards associated with even common household products, it is critical that this kind of naturalistic text successfully communicates the right information to product users.

An impaired ability to make inferences during reading could compound age-related text comprehension problems (e.g., related to memory and perception) that may already be experienced by older adults. Older adults need to be able to understand a variety of reading materials designed to help them function independently in the community. For example, understanding how to safely operate medical equipment and health care devices at home can reduce the amount of time spent in a hospital or doctor's office. Warnings and instructions found on common products such as medications, cleaners, paints, and polishes can be dense and complex, but they still need to be interpreted correctly to reduce the likelihood of an accident (for adults of all ages). Prior research investigating age-related effects on inferencing ability (the ability to derive logical conclusions from factual knowledge or evidence) and text comprehension has yielded mixed results (e.g., Graesser & Bertus, 1998; Light, Zelinski, & Moore, 1982). There has also been no research to date investigating the effects of age on comprehension for explicit or implied information used in actual product warnings. Previous work does, however, suggest that older consumers are generally exposed to the same types of products and warnings as are younger consumers (Hancock, Rogers, & Fisk, 2001).

The current research examined age effects on comprehension for explicitly stated and implied information used in real and fabricated warning texts. One primary goal was to determine how well younger and older adults correctly infer information from warnings and if age-related differences exist in inferencing ability. Age-related deficiencies could be observed for several different reasons. Deficiencies could be caused by memory retrieval problems experienced after a warning has been read, by differences in reader goals that affect how the warning is processed, or by differences in the degree to which real-world knowledge can be used to aid understanding. Another goal of this research was to determine how current product warning designs are understood by investigating how well people in different age groups comprehend warnings used on real consumer products. Even when warning information is clearly spelled out on a product, it is not clear if comprehension patterns differ across age groups, given that age-related effects on comprehension for real-world product warnings have not been previously investigated.

The relative contributions of memory and knowledge to age-related effects on warning comprehension were assessed by systematically varying (a) the influence of memory load and (b) the degree to which knowledge could be used. In both experiments, the role of memory was investigated by varying when the warning comprehension test was given (immediately after reading a warning or after a delay). The degree to which memory for information was emphasized in the test instructions was also varied. …

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