Are the Elderly More Likely to Conned by Scams?

old spider-man scams

New research suggests that, as people age, they may lose those ‘spider senses’ that once alerted them to be wary of scams. Image: LizzyGrafik/Flickr/CC BY-SA

Popular wisdom would have us believe that seniors are more susceptible to falling for scams because of diminished brain activity, coupled with an accumulation of assets. However, new research suggests that as people age, they may lose those “spider senses,” or gut feelings, that alert people to situations in which they should raise their guard.

Are seniors more vulnerable to scams?

An estimated $2.9 billion was bilked from American seniors in 2010 alone, according to the MetLife Mature Market Institute. What makes the elderly more vulnerable to this kind of crime? Shelly Taylor, a professor of psychology at the University of California Los Angeles, was inspired to pursue her research when her father, in his seventies, was conned out of $17,000 by homeless swindlers.

Taylor conducted an early test in which 119 people between the ages of 55 and 84 all looked at the same photographs of 30 faces, rating them on how trustworthy they looked.

While young and old alike found so-called “neutral” faces trustworthy, the responses differed greatly on those faces with visual clues to their shady character. Younger participants were much quicker to pick up on these differences.

“[The elderly subjects] missed facial cues that are pretty easily distinguished,” Taylor said. “Is something going on the brain that would explain this pattern?”


Consider the anterior insula scams

In a follow-up study, Taylor and her team hooked 23 people, aged 55 to 80, and 21 younger ones, whose ages averaged 33, up to functional magnetic resonance imaging equipment. The fMRI tracks brain activity in real time. These subjects again studied pictures of faces and ranked them by how trustworthy they looked.

Taylor and her team found that younger adults were using a part of the brain called the anterior insula, especially when studying those features commonly considered to be signs of untrustworthiness. This part of the brain did not light up nearly as often for the elderly subjects.

The anterior insula is seemingly the seat of gut hunches that tells us to when we should look out. And it becomes less active as people age. This directly contradicts the popular notion that seniors, raised in a simpler time, are naturally more trusting. The phenomenon, Taylor said, is not tied to any specific generation and will hold true for “Boomers and Gen Xers.”

“Their brains are not saying ‘be wary,’ as the brains of the younger adults are,” Taylor said of the older subjects. “A diminished ‘gut’ response to cues of untrustworthiness may partially underlie older adults’ vulnerability to fraud.”


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