What Jealousy Teaches Us

The toughest teachers in grade school were probably the ones who taught you the most; jealousy, one of the most difficult emotions to weather, is similarly instructive. Nurturing it is self-destructive but listening to its cues can lead you to a more fulfilling path in life.

Resist the temptation to look like your kids

Is envy of the young driving you to try to look like one of them?

Kids eagerly await becoming grownups and being able to dress like mom and dad. They can't wait to shed their youthful trapping and enter the adult world. A new trend called "copycat moms" shows that the reverse is now taking place. Middle-aged mothers, wanting to retain their youthful self-images, are taking after their teenage daughters and adopting their clothing choices. Walk through the aisles of stores like Forever 21 and Aeropostale, and chances are you'll see these moms loading up on the latest high-fashion and trendy styles that their daughters are sporting. What's behind this generational reversal?

The copycat mom phenomenon came to light in a study conducted by Temple University consumer behavior researcher Ayalla Ruvio. Mothers and daughters completed a "consumer doppelganger" scale which measures a consumer's tendency to mimic intentionally the behavior of other consumers.  A doppelganger is someone who looks like another person (you can find your own at this website). The consumer doppelganger intentionally tries to look like another person by imitating that person's clothing. To a certain extent, we all show the "Consumer Doppelganger Effect" (CDE) every time we make a clothing or cosmetics choice because it looks good on a model or celebrity.  However, moms of teenage daughters show a special variant of the CDE.

In Ruvio's study, to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Behavior, mothers and daughters completed a questionnaire that asked them to rate the extent to which their purchasing decisions were influenced by each other. The purchasing decisions they were asked to rate included choice of brands or products, preferences for particular stores, and preferences for particular styles. Ruvio then compared the direction of influence from mother to daughter vs. daughter to mother. Suprisingly, mothers were more likely to be influenced by their daughters than daughters by their mothers.  The CDE in general is affected by the relevance of the person we're imitating. In other words, our role models are people we see as possessing desirable qualities that we would like to have. Teenage girls show the CDE with celebrities more than with their own mothers; mothers, in turn show the CDE with their daughters.

This finding of the reverse socialization of parents by their children may

not come as a surprise to anyone who has, or know people who have, teenage kids. How many middle-aged parents, on their own accord, would throw out their handy-dandy basic phone or even Blackberry, to have the cool iPhone that their kids brandish around the house? We know plenty of 50- or 60-somethings who pepper their workout music with Lady Gaga's latest hits.  Reverse socialization can be seen as a positive influence on many areas of the midlifer's mental functioning. By learning from their kids, they can become more adaptable and even more mentally agile, as is being shown by research on videogaming and cognition. Openness to experience and personality flexibility are known to be two of the major influences on brain plasticity in later life. Keeping up with the times has its benefits.

However, adding to the reverse socialization effect, is it possible that middle-aged moms are imitating their daughters because they don't want to get old?  The Ruvio study measured "cognitive age," or the perception of your age (rather than your chronological age) and didn't find that it made a difference in the daughter-to-mother CDE. It doesn't seem as though mothers who view themselves as younger than their actual age are particularly prone to the CDE. Even so, the mothers clearly saw their daughters as more relevant to their purchasing decisions than vice versa, indicating their desire to identify with a younger version of themselves.  Copycat moms may, without knowing it, be preoccupied with the desire to become their own daughters.  (That daughters didn't see their mothers as relevant to their purchasing decisions is probably not all that remarkable of an effect).

In 2009, a 50-year old British mother JanetCunliffe spent over 10,000 pounds (over $16,000 US) in plastic surgery to look like her 28-year-old daughter, Jane (the mother is the one on the left on the previous page). Janet's transformation doesn't seem to have set off a world-wide trend in this particular type of extreme makeover. However, it's a symptom of a more deep-seated fear of aging that permeates our youth-oriented society.

Retailers seem to know that it's worth it to make their youth-oriented products seem attractive to older consumers. Fashionistas even advise older women that it's not the style, it's your body type that should determine the clothing you purchase. In other words, if you don't have too much cellulite, go ahead and wear those short shorts and teeny tops without restraint.

It's tough to draw the line in the sand separating ordinary and healthy CDE's from those that reflect fear of aging or an unhealthy over-identification with a youthful role model.  Here are five tips to help you figure out if you're a consumer doppelganger along with remedies to help you stay focused on accepting your own age and identity:

1. You make your purchasing decisions on the basis of who's doing the selling. As I reported in an earlier post, celebrity endorsements are powerful influences on purchasing behavior.

Suggested solution: Learn to resist the pull of these endorsements and decide what's truly best for you.

2. Teenage stars seem cooler to you than role models who are your own age. You wish you were more like Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift than like George Clooney or Sandra Bullock.

Suggested solution:  Find age-appropriate models who can help you feel better about being a member of yours, not a younger, generation.

3. You're afraid that looking old will hamper your job success. You look at the younger employees around you with fear, or feel certain that you won't get the job you want because you're too old. This sort of anxiety can lead you to make consumer choices that can backfire.

Suggested solution: You are the age that you are, and no amount of dressing like a 20-something (or younger) will change that. Adapting your looks to balance what's age-appropriate with what's trendy will help you look both mature and in line with the times.

4. At social gatherings or family get-togethers, you avoid talking to others your own age or older. People who over-identify with their young companions run the risk of looking (and being) intrusive. Sometimes kids want to get away from grown-ups, and if you hang around them too much, you'll be in the way.

Suggested solutions: Being around younger people can certainly have its benefits, to a point. Mentoring the young by showing interest in them is a way to benefit members of both generations. However, if your focus on the young reflects your own inner ageism, it's important to learn to appreciate the social value of your own contemporaries.

5. You let the opinions of the young outweigh your own inner compass. The little voice inside you wishes you didn't have to drop your favorite communication preferences in favor of those that are cutting edge. However, you don't want to look like you're in the technological dark ages, so you throw these aside in favor of what the young are doing.

Suggested solutions: You may be surprised to find out that even some young people think retro is cool. Regardless, stick with your preferred ways of interacting with people, even if it means living in an app-less world. You won't communicate very effectively if your fingers or brain are overwhelmed.

Being happy in your own skin, clothes, and other trappings of age is ultimately what's going to allow you to make decisions that are right for you. And who know, feeling secure and comfortable in who you are might make you the envy of the young.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011

Reference will be updated after publication: The article's title is Consumer's Doppelganger: A role model perspective.

What Jealousy Teaches Us