Posts Tagged ‘Shelley E. Taylor’

Why Are Older People More Vulnerable to Fraud?

December 19, 2012

It is always depressing hearing a story about an elderly couple who have lost their entire life savings to a scam. But one also wonders how people with so many years of experience can fall for such a scam. One would think that as we age we would become less, not more, vulnerable. An article in a Special Section on Aging in the Washington Post1 provides some insight.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), up to 80% of scam victims are older than 65. The tendency of the elderly to accentuate the positive makes them easy marks according to the FTC and the FBI. According to social neuroscientist Shelly Taylor, “Older people are good at regulating their emotions, seeing things in a positive light, and not overreacting to everyday problems.”2 Taylor and her colleagues showed pictures of faces considered trustworthy, neutral, or untrustworthy to a group up of 119 older adults (aged 55 to 84) and 24 younger adults (aged 20 to 42). “Signs of untrustworthiness included averted eyes; an insincere smile that doesn’t reach the eyes; a smug, smirky mouth, and a backward tilt of the head.”3 Each face was rated on a scale from minus 3 (very untrustworthy) to 3 (very trustworthy). The results indicated that the untrustworthy faces were rated as significantly more trustworthy by the older subjects than by the younger ones.

The same researchers then performed the same test with new participants. However, this time the brains of the participants were imaged looking for differences in brain activity between the age groups. When the younger subjects were asked to judge whether the faces were trustworthy, the anterior insula became active. This activity increased during the sight of an untrustworthy face. However, older people showed little or no activation. According to Taylor the insula’s job is to collect information not about others, but about one’s own body, sensing feelings and the so-called gut instincts, and presenting that information to the rest of the brain. “It’s a warning bell that doesn’t seem to work as well in older people.” It appears that the optimistic tendency of the elderly might be overriding this warning signal.

It is curious to speculate as to why the elderly tend towards optimism. As we age, we close in on the prospect of our own death, and have likely experienced the passing of loved ones. Physical and cognitive problems are likely to present themselves. Social relationships can deteriorate and be lost, so loneliness can be a problem. An optimistic attitude can be quite helpful in coping with these difficulties. Nevertheless, the elderly need to realize that this optimistic attitude can make them vulnerable to fraud. See also the healthymemory blog posts, “Will Baby Boomers Be More Vulnerable to Scams?” and “The Distinctiveness Heuristic.” Enter “Optimism” in the search box to find more posts regarding optimism and its positive and negative merits.

1Norton, E. (2012). Why Older People Get Scammed, Washington Post, December 11, E4.

2Ibid.

3Ibid.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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