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With Age Comes Greater Trust, and Risk of Exploitation

A new study shows that older adults are more susceptible to fraud and scams.

--by Alexia Severson A scammer

The Gist

Seniors are more willing to trust others than younger adults, putting themselves at risk for fraud and scams, according to new study conducted by researchers at the University of California.  

Compared with younger participants, older adults in this study showed lesser anterior insula activation when making explicit judgments of trustworthiness and when perceiving untrustworthy faces. The anterior insula is a brain region implicated in the processes of perceiving risk and reacting with disgust. This might explain why seniors are so much more susceptible swindles and exploitation than other adults.

 The findings are also consistent with the theory that older adults remember positive or neutral information better than negative information, a tendency that often works in their favor.  But according to researchers, this susceptibility may also put older adults at risk of failing to identify untrustworthy people, leaving them vulnerable to tricks and deceit.

The Expert Take

Shelley Taylor, a social neuroscientist and one of the authors of the study, said that older adults’ diminished ability to perceive trustworthiness is not specific to a certain generation, such as the post-war generation, but that it is in fact an intrinsic part of aging. Seniors' ability to regulate their emotions in positive ways might also allow them to deal with the hardships that come with aging, such as losing a partner or spouse.

“The upside is that they control the negative sides of things,” she said. “The downside, though, is that older adults are more trusting and more vulnerable to scams of all kinds.”

Taylor said it is important that family members find ways of keeping older adults from being exposed to scams in the first place, particularly financial scams.

“Hang up the phone, throw away mail; do what you can to keep older adults from being exposed to these frauds,” she said.

Taylor also suggests that older persons find a trustworthy and reliable family member who can help them manage financial decisions.

Source and Method

Taylor, Elizabeth Castle, and colleagues first asked younger and older adults to rate faces as being trustworthy, neutral, or untrustworthy. While all participants displayed equivalent skills in rating the first two categories, older individuals were less adept at identifying visual cues for untrustworthy faces.

The researchers next used brain imaging to observe the brain activity of the study participants as they viewed such images.

The Takeaway

The results of this study are important because it allows us to better understand why seniors are disproportionately vulnerable to fraud. It also reveals that this change in perception is not necessarily due to a specific generation being more trusting than the next, but that it is a natural part of aging, linked to specific brain activity.

Future research could lead to counseling or intervention programs in which older adults can learn ways to avoid fraud and to make better financial decisions.

Other Research

Older adults and their changing perceptions have been studied from various perspectives. For example, one study published in the open access journal PLOS ONE in 2012 compared aging and weight-ratio perception in both younger and older adults. Researchers determined that as we age, we are less capable of correctly estimating differences in the weights of objects we lift. In fact, older adults consistently estimated the weight ratios as much higher than they actually were.

On a more positive note, a study published in 2009 in the journal Psychology and Aging determined that older adults have a greater ability regulate emotions when conducting memory-intensive tasks. In contrast, researchers found that young adults often let negative emotions or unwanted thoughts disrupt their ability to simultaneously or subsequently perform tasks.

According to a study published in 2007 in Psychological Science, older adults also exhibit a better balance than younger adults in the way they process emotional information from the environment. Researchers in this study found that younger adults often pay more attention to emotionally negative information, while older adults assign equal importance to emotionally positive information. Researchers concluded that whether this emotional perception is an automatic, unconscious change or a conscious effort on the part of the older adult to switch their world view, it has definite implications for the well-being of seniors in general.

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.