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Some Exploratory Findings on the Development of Musical Tastes

Author(s): Morris B. Holbrook and Robert M. Schindler

Source: The Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Jun., 1989), pp. 119-124
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2489308
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Journal of Consumer Research.

Some Exploratory Findings on the
Development of Musical Tastes


Preferences toward popular music appear to reflect tastes acquired during late
adolescence or early adulthood. In an empirical investigation of this parsimonious
inductive proposition, both the aggregate results (R = 0.84) and the disaggregated
findings (R = 0.46) suggest that the development of tastes for popular music fol-
lows an inverted U-shaped pattern that reaches a peak in about the 24th year.
Possible explanations include intrinsic components (e.g., a developmental period
of maximum sensitivity analogous to the critical periods documented in ethological
studies of imprinting)and extrinsic components (e.g., social pressures from one's
peer group that reach peak intensity during a particularphase in one's life cycle).

In thisarticle,we addressa parsimoniousinductive Shade of Pale" (Procol Harum), "Ain't Too Proud to
proposition concerning the development of con- Beg"/"My Girl" (The Temptations), "Bad Moon
sumers'tastes for popular music. Popular music is ex- Rising" (Creedence ClearwaterRevival), and so on.
amined because we believe it fills an important need Similarly, many baby boomers who reachedmaturity
in people's lives, affordsa conspicuous example of es- during the Beatlemania period still listen almost ex-
thetic consumption linked to the hedonic aspects of clusively to 1960s rock and could hardly wait for the
human experience, and representsa type of consumer reissue of Sergeant Pepper and Abbey Road on CDs.
behavior with which the authors have considerable One of the authors falls into this category. His wife,
first-hand familiarity. Our informal observations of somewhat younger, still likes Springsteenand Gene-
family members, friends, colleagues, and other ac- sis. The other author (more aged and less in touch
quaintances suggest a fairly widespread or even uni- with the pop mainstream) dotes on the 1950s West
versal phenomenon (at least in Western societies); Coastjazz and the classical repertoirethat he grew to
people seem to develop preferencesfor popular musi- cherish during his college years. His wife, older than
cal styles (typically those which prevail among their the first wife just mentioned, still loves Elvis Presley,
current circle of friends) during late adolescence or Chuck Berry,and Little Richard.
early adulthood, and these preferences over other We know of no systematic empirical work that has
styles of popular music tend to prevail for the rest of investigated this inductively based and rather parsi-
their lives. monious proposition that consumers tend to fixate on
Anecdotal support for this parsimonious inductive whatever popular music they happen to enjoy during
proposition comes from such cultural artifactsas The the period in which they first reach maturity and to
Big Chill. In this movie, members of a college class carry those same musical preferences forward into
reunite after about 15 years, and they still listen to later life. However, after we had conducted the pres-
the popular music that they enjoyed when they were ent study, Pareles (1988, p. 28), in an article in the
university students in the late 1960s: "A Whiter "Arts & Leisure" section of the New York Times,
posed questions on almost exactly the same issue and
suggested a ratherbroad potential age span in which
*MorrisB. Holbrook is Professorof Business, GraduateSchool people form their musical tastes and tend to maintain
of Business, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027. Robert them. "To many listeners. . . , the pop absorbed
M. Schindler is Associate Professor, School of Business, Rutgers
University-Camden,Camden,NJ 08102. The authors,listed alpha- during the teens and early 20's takes on a special reso-
betically, contributed equally to the development of this study. nance that no later tunes can match."
They thank Harry Davis, John Deighton, Steve Hoch, and three We conducted an empirical investigation of our
anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier parsimonious inductive proposition that tastes for
draftand Arzou Ahsan for her workin collecting the data. The first
authorgratefullyacknowledgesthe supportof the Columbia Busi- popular music tend to fixate during a relatively nar-
ness School's FacultyResearchFund. row age span, sometime in the years of late adoles-
cence or early adulthood. Specifically, our study pro-
o Vol. 16* June1989

vides an empirical investigation of whether popular In restricting our musical selections to the list
musical preferences peak at a certain age, thereby shown in the Exhibit (a step dictated, in part, by cost
achieving a more precise estimate of that age than considerations), we do not mean to imply that this
those permittedby informal observation or journalis- set of recordings represents a definitive sampling of
tic wisdom. musical Americana.Indeed, innumerablehistorically
important bands, singers, groups, and other perform-
ers fail to appear on the list (e.g., Ellington, Crosby,
METHOD Sinatra, Presley, Belafonte, the Kingston Trio, the
Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, to name a few). Our
General Approach purpose, however, is not to sample the musical styles
We chose a correlational approachfor two reasons. that prevail in each time period, but ratherto capture
First, the researchbegan as an exploratory investiga- the range of styles that has unfolded over time.
tion of a tentative hypothesis that would require con- Hence, we assume that the variance in preferences
siderable further specification before it could be es- within a time period (not representedby our design)
tablished in full rigor. Second, the proposition in- tends to be overwhelmed by the variance across time
volves longitudinal behavior for which a carefully periods (our chief focus) for any given individual. In
controlled experiment would be extremely costly and other words, we care less about the differences in a
prohibitively time-consuming. Hence, as a first step, respondent's preferencestoward Johnny Mathis ver-
we developed a comparatively quick correlational sus that exemplar's popular contemporaries, such as
study capable of more precisely specifying the phe- Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, or Perry Como, than about
nomenon of interest. those toward Johnny Mathis singing "Chances Are"
(1958) versus the Mills Brothersperforming "Smoke
Rings" (1932) or Peter Gabriel doing "Sledgeham-
General Study Design mer" (1986).
We selected 28 top hits from the years 1932 to 1986
(at two-year intervals) for musical stimuli. These 28 Sample
selections representtheir respectiveyears'best-selling Our sample of 108 respondents consisted primarily
recordings (among Billboard's top 10 but, to avoid of male and female members of a local rugby club, a
outliers, not among the top three). These songs were woman's church group, and a parent-teacherassocia-
collected and compiled with the help of staffmembers tion. The latter two sources received token donations
from a recordlibraryof a radio station in a large Mid- of $2 per respondent for participating.As previously
western city. mentioned, respondents rangedin ages from 16 to 86
We played 30-second excerpts from these musical years and their mean age was 54.3, with 43 percent
hits for a sample of respondents, ranging from 16 to under and 57 percent over age 50.
86 yearsold, who provided preferenceratingsfor each Although it reflectscertain necessary"economies,"
of the 28 excerpts. After standardizing these ratings this convenience sample appears consistent with the
within subjects (across excerpts), we related these exploratory purposes of the study. All respondents
standardized musical preferences (the dependent showed an appropriatelevel of knowledge and inter-
variable) to the ages of the respondents at the time est in popular music. Further, though it would be
the musical examples achieved their popularity (the dangerous to generalize the musical preferences of
independent variable). Our parsimonious inductive this particularsample to the rest of the American (let
proposition predicted an inverted U-shaped relation alone the global) population, we find no reason to
that would peak sometime in late adolescence or early doubt the suitability of the convenience sample for
adulthood. examining the phenomenon of interest in the present
Musical Stimuli
The 28 musical selections appear chronologically
in the Exhibit. However, for purposes of exposure to Respondents met in groups varying in sizes from
the respondents,we arranged30-second excerpts in a 14 to 61. These groups listened to the 28 half-minute
random order and recorded this random order musical excerpts on a portable tape player in one of
twice-once forward and once in reverse order-on the random orders. Immediately after each selection,
separate tapes that we played for different respon- the respondentsratedit on a 10-point scale by circling
dents. This counterbalancing of random orders per- a number from 1 ("I dislike it a lot") to 10 ("I like it
mitted us to avoid biases due to fatigue or to other a lot"). Scores on this scale were standardizedwithin
artifacts associated with position in the sequence of respondents (across stimuli) by subtractingthe mean
exposures. and dividing by the standarddeviation, which had the


Year Performer Title

1932 Mills Brothers "Smoke Rings"

1934 Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie "Evenin' "
1936 Benny Goodman "Goody, Goody"
1938 Helen Forrest with Artie Shaw "They Say"
1940 Helen Forrest with Benny Goodman "I'm Nobody's Baby"
1942 Kay Kyser and orchestra "Jingle, Jangle, Jingle"
1944 HarryJames "I'llGet By"
1946 Mike Douglas "Ole ButtermilkSky"
1948 Dinah Shore "Buttons and Bows"
1950 Eileen Barton "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Have Baked a Cake"
1952 Mills Brothers "Glow Worm"
1954 The Crows "Gee"
1956 The Four Lads "Standing on a Corner"
1958 Johnny Mathis "Chances Are"
1960 Marc Dinning "Teen Angel"
1962 Gene Chandler "The Duke of Earl"
1964 The Animals "The House of the Rising Sun"
1966 The Shondells "Hanky Panky"
1968 The 5th Dimension "Aquarius"
1970 Three Dog Night "Mama Told Me Not to Come"
1972 The Hollies "Long, Cool Woman in a Black Dress"
1974 America "Tin Man"
1976 Paul McCartney and Wings "Silly Love Songs"
1978 Andy Gibb "Shadow Dancing"
1980 Christopher Cross "Sailing"
1982 Asia "Heat of the Moment"
1984 Culture Club "Karma Chameleon"
1986 Peter Gabriel "Sledgehammer"

effect of avoiding possible distortions due to idiosyn- doubtless break down in many individual cases (e.g.,
cratic scale-responsebiases. for someone who only listened to jazz and classical
Our decision to use a single- ratherthan a multiple- music during high school and college). However, it
item preference scale reflects two important factors. appears plausible to argue that, in the aggregate,the
First, we felt compelled to forestall the fatigue effects assumption should tend to hold.,In other words, all
that would have resulted from asking respondents to else being equal, a 1958 college graduateshould tend
rate each of the 28 stimuli on several scales. Second, to like "Chances Are" and to dislike both "Smoke
because our comparisons dealt with ratingsof numer- Rings" and "Sledgehammer,"while 1932 and 1986
ous stimuli standardizedwithin respondents, the rat- graduates should tend to prefer "Smoke Rings" and
ings were expected to sufferfar less from the ill effects "Sledgehammer,"respectively.
of the poor reliabilitynormally associatedwith single-
item scales than would isolated ratings of a single Analysis
To investigate this prediction, we used the age of
Key Research Question the respondent and the year of each hit to create an
interactive measure for each observation-namely,
As previously discussed, we expected that the de- the song-specific age of the respondent at the time
velopment of an individual's tastes for popular music when that particularpiece of music became a hit. This
would reach a peak for selections associated with late independent variable ranged from -39 to 85; that is,
adolescence or early adulthood (with lower levels of our youngest respondent was minus 39 years old
preferencefor both older and newer recordings).This when "Smoke Rings" hit the popularity charts,
was based on the assumptions that predominant mu- whereas our oldest respondent (who was 31 years old
sical taste formation occurs during a certain critical at the time of "Smoke Rings") was 85 years old when
age range and that the hits among our selections rep- "Sledgehammer"became a hit.
resented the general types of popular musical styles In short, this independent variable gave us a range
that our respondents were indeed listening to during of 125 song-specific ages to use. (Notice that, by defi-
those critical periods. The latter assumption would nition, each level of song-specificage involved differ-

FIGURE mum musical preferences attached to hits that were

RELATIONSHIPBETWEENSONG-SPECIFICAGE popular when respondents were 23.47 years old. As
AND MUSICALPREFERENCE anticipated, older and newer hits tended to decline in
Musical preference
popularity for music/respondent combinations that
represented increasingly lower and higher levels of
1.0 _ song-specificage.
Some retadersmight wonder what would have hap-
pened if we had estimated the nonmonotonic rela-
tionship on all 3,023 observations (28 stimuli X 108
~* respondents minus 1 missing value) rather than on
the 124 mean preferences, as just described. The an-
0., swer is that, as usual in such cases, the disaggregated
results were weaker (R = 0.46, F(2,3020) = 413.44, p
< 0.0001) but that, as is also typical, the findingswere
even more significant statistically with significant
contributions from both song-specific age (t(3020)
= -5.15, p < 0.0001) and song-specific age squared
-1.0 As .o -o \ (t(3020) = -28.74, p < 0.0001). Most importantly,
the shape of the disaggregated relationship closely
mirrored that found for the averaged data. Specifi-
cally, preferencesfollowed an inverted U-shaped pat-
-39 23.5 85 tern, first rising and then falling with song-specific
Song-specific age
age. This time, peak preferences occurred at 23.66
years,just slightly above the level of 23.47 found with
the aggregateddata.

ent songs for different respondents.) For each song- DISCUSSION

specific age level, we computed the mean standard-
ized musical preference across the observations that Summary of Results
fell into that category. (With one missing song-spe-
cific age value, this yielded a sample of 124 song-spe- The results conform to expectations based on our
cific age categories.)We then looked for the predicted parsimonious inductive proposition concerning the
inverted U-shaped relation by regressingmean pref- development of tastes for popular music. Specifically,
erence on song-specific age and song-specific age whether we focus on the strongeraggregateresults (R
squared. To minimize problems of multicollinearity = 0.84) or the weaker disaggregatedrelationship (R
between the two independent variables, song-specific = 0.46), we find the anticipated curvilinearpattern-
age was recoded as a deviation from its own mean, our respondents maximally preferredmusic that was
but that detail does not affect the shape of the overall popular(in this case) when they were about 23.5 years
curvilinear relationship and need not concern us old. As we expected, earlier and later music was dis-
here. liked by comparison.

RESULTS Limitations
The multiple regressionanalysis produced a strong Like all consumer research,this study faces certain
and highly significantrelationship of popular musical potential limitations. First, for external validity, the
preference to song-specific age (R = 0.84, F(2,121) result requires replication not only on additional,
= 139.53, p < 0.0001). As expected, we found a sig- more representativesamples of American consumers,
nificant contribution from song-specific age squared but also on wider and more diverse selections of mu-
(t(21) = -16.52,p < 0.0001), but not from song-spe- sic. Either of these extensions could, for example,
cific age (t(121) = -1.44, p = 0.15). This result sup- shift the age at which the preferencepeak occurs. Sec-
ports our intuitions concerning an inverted U-shaped ond, for broader applicability, the possibility of sim-
effect of song-specific age on popular musical prefer- ilar effects should be investigated in other product
ences. The specific shape of this nonmonotonic effect categories, such as fashion (e.g., clothing), cosmetics
appeared.loly in the Figure. (e.g., cologne), decor (e.g., furniture), and art (e.g.,
Although the peak can be estimated visually from paintings). Third, for even greater generalizability,
the Figure, it can be computed more precisely by set- similar tests should be conducted in other cultures to
ting the first derivative of the regression equation establish the degree to which age-related preference
equal to zero. As indicated by this calculation, maxi- peaking is a universal as opposed to an ethno-specific

phenomenon. Fourth, for internal validity, such 28) draws an analogy between the development of
studies will eventually require tests that make use of tastes for popular music and the ethological phenom-
carefully controlled experimental manipulations ad- enon of imprinting when he asks and implies an
ministered longitudinally. Given the variety of possi- affirmativeanswerto the question,
ble contaminating factors (e.g., family, friends, me-
dia, and other aspects of the respondent's social envi- Does love of music have a window of opportunity?Is
there some moment in our biological program when
ronment), such longitudinal experiments inevitably popular music means the most, when we bond to "our
will be difficult to design and to execute. Fifth and song". . . the way baby birdsbond to the nearestmov-
most problematic of all, if the phenomenon found in ing object?
the present study continues to appear in further ex-
aminations of its generalizability (external validity) However, this loose analogy should not be taken too
and causal force (internal validity), the most impor- far. Emde and Harmon (1984, pp. 60-61) caution
tant remaining question will concern why a critical that "there is no reason to suppose that imprinting
period or age-related preference peak occurs in the mechanisms play any significant role in environmen-
development of tastes for popular music in particular tal effects on socioemotional development." Yet even
or, perhaps,consumer tastes in general. these skeptical authors conclude that "the general ob-
servation that there are sensitive periods in develop-
Interpretationand Possible Explanations ment during which there is an enhanced sensitivity to
particular environmental stimuli remains valid" (p.
It appears,at least in the case of popular music, that 60). Based on this broad notion of a period of maxi-
peak preferencesmay develop during a critical period mum sensitivity to particularenvironmental stimuli,
of maximum sensitivity. Spreen et al. (1984, p. 91) we suggest that imprinting provides a productively
suggest that usually such periods of maximum sensi- suggestive metaphor (no more, no less) for describing
tivity depend on some combination of intrinsic and a phenomenon that we believe occurs in other areas
extrinsic components. In other words, reminiscent of of human social existence. (For discussions of the role
the age-old discussion of the relative importance of of metaphors in scientific theory development, see
biological and social influences in development, both Jones 1982; Lakoffand Johnson 1980).
internal (endogenous) and external (exogenous) fac- Still referring primarily to the development of
tors must be taken into account. tastes for popular music, the extrinsic determinants
In the case of musical tastes, the intrinsic determi- in humans might embrace any number of socially
nants of a critical period might include various matu- based factors involving peer pressure, group norms,
rational changes in hormonal or other neurobiologi- media exposure, purchases of recordedmusic, and so
cal activity, such as changes associated with Piagetian on. (For a good general discussion of the importance
stages or activities associated with the heightened of social factors to the appreciation of music, see Ko-
erotic arousalthat occurs during adolescence. For ex- necni 1982.) One likely determinant of a critical pe-
ample, the phenomenon of imprinting in ethology riod for the development of musical tastes involves
(Lorenz 1951) refersto the manner in which-during the familiaritythat results from ffrequentexposure (as
a biologically fixed critical period of early develop- when everyone in a college dorm constantly listens to
ment-a baby bird or other young animal forms irre- the same set of shared recordings). Another possibil-
versibly strong and lasting attachments to some so- ity is that musical tastes may evolve flexibly from in-
cially appropriateobject such as its mother (Fischer fancy through the childhood and teenage years (Stipp
and Lazerson 1984; Reber 1985). Some analogous 1988, p. 29) but may finally "consolidate," "crystal-
tendencies may exist in human development. For ex- ize," or "coalesce" in early adulthood (e.g., pressure
ample, Spreen et al. (1984) argue that there may be a from the consensus of predominant peer-group
critical period in humans for the formation of basic norms might be more influential when consumers
social relationships and certain types of learning. leave home for the first time). Another possibility is
With respect to the former, some researchers (e.g., that consumers associate musical preferences with
Bowlby 1951) have suggested that "human children certain emotionally powerful "rites of passage" (e.g.,
also become attachedto their mothers or other people fraternity parties, school dances, and other social
during a critical period in infancy" (Clarke-Stewart gatherings) that guide their "coming of age" during
and Friedman 1987, p. 15). With respect to the latter, the years of college and graduate school. For other
work by Lenneberg (1967) and others has suggested consumers, especially those who do not attend ad-
that "natural language acquisition can occur only vanced educational institutions, such rites of matura-
duringthe critical period that begins at age 2 and ends tion might simply correspond to the relatively care-
around age 14" (Spreen et al. 1984, p. 98) or "be- free period of socializing that occurs prior to settling
tween about 2 years of age and 12 to 15 years of age" down to a marriage, a career, and a family. Finally,
(Fischer and Lazerson 1984, p. 74). Hence, in line musical preferences might reflect some consumers'
with this notion of a critical period, Pareles (1988, p. periods of peak involvement with various social

causes (e.g., civil rights), political parties (e.g., the sumers in the baby-boom generation will not lose
Democratic primary),or currentevents (e.g., protest- their preferencesfor blue jeans as they age.
ing the Vietnam war). Thus, it seems appropriatefor
Pareles (1988) to hazard the guess that exogenous in- Conclusion
fluences include the emotional anchoring and soci- These and other considerations deserve furtherem-
etal relevance found in the themes and styles of popu- pirical exploration in search of explanations for and
lar melodies and lyrics. extensions of the phenomenon documented in this
One might expect that the sort of critical period article. Meanwhile, we appear to have identified
phenomenon regardingmusical tastes investigated by within the limitations discussed an empirical regular-
the present study might well occur for other types of ity of potential importance-namely, a peak in the
consumption. For example, at a more general level, development of preferences for popular music that
Crosby, Gill, and Lee (1984) reviewed evidence that occurs in early adulthood (in the present case, at
consumer values depend on "cohort-historical influ- about the 24th year). The exploratoryfindingssuggest
ences" (i.e., the economic conditions, historical some merit in our inductive proposition on the devel-
events, and other life experiences that occur during opment of musical tastes.
the period of primary socialization) and therefore
tend to vary with age (interpretedas a surrogatevari- [Received November 1988. Revised January 1989.]
able). They investigatedthis relationshipusing survey
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