According to the May 2011 survey conducted by the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), individuals over the age of 50 take fewer precautions to prevent fraud and are therefore more susceptible to it. With a large portion of the population reaching that susceptible age, many groups interested in protecting the interests of older adults seek to understand why members of this age group become victims of fraud so often. A recent two-part study headed by UCLA’s Shelley Taylor sheds some light on the problem.
The study concentrates on how young adults and relatively older adults perceive trustworthy and untrustworthy faces. Participants in the study had healthy, aging brains — a requirement in testing individuals’ judgments unhindered by brain conditions such as strokes or dementia. The participants were shown multiple portraits and asked to rank the trustworthiness of the individuals in the photos. The participants’ rankings were compared to responses given from other test groups.
According to professor Wesley Moons, a psychologist involved with the study at UCLA who has recently moved to UC Davis, untrustworthy traits could refer to the actual architecture, or physical characteristics, of the face or expressions.
Elizabeth Castle, a graduate student at UCLA and lead author of the study, listed a few of these “untrustworthy” traits, including narrow chin, scrunched up eyebrows, shallow cheekbones, deeper indentation between eyes or a wider nose.
“A smile that is in the mouth but doesn’t go up to the eyes, an averted gaze and a backward lean could indicate untrustworthiness,” said Taylor, the lead researcher on the study, in her interview with NPR’s Patti Neighmond.
The researchers asked the elderly test subjects to rank the trustworthiness of two sets of faces—both sets had already been rated as trustworthy or untrustworthy by a younger control group.
“The older adults rated the trustworthy faces and the neutral faces exactly the same as the younger adults did,” Taylor said.
However, when it came to predetermined untrustworthy faces, results differed.
“When it got to the cues of untrustworthiness, [the elder participants] didn’t process those cues as well. They rated those people as much more trustworthy than the younger adults did,” Taylor said.
In the second part of the study, the researchers looked to ROI (region of interest) analyses of fMRI scans to determine what parts of the brain helped differentiate trustworthiness from untrustworthiness. Researchers discovered from the results that the anterior insula response, the source of the “gut reaction,” did not trigger within older adults. This lack of a gut reaction is why untrustworthy faces were rated as trustworthy by the elder study group.
To ensure that it was indeed the anterior insula, researchers used a neutral base study, such as gender identification, to see if the anterior insula activated only in cases that would involve gut reaction or bodily unease. According to Castle and Moons, both of these reactions originate in the anterior insula.
However, while a lack of an anterior insula response could explain why it is easier for older people to become victims of fraud, the research is still fairly new and there could be other factors that have not been identified yet.
Lisa Miller, an associate professor of human development at UC Davis, suggested that positivity bias, which allows people to remember positive memories better than negative memories, could be involved. Older adults tend to be more content and have stronger positivity biases. The positive leaning would make it harder for older adults to draw on knowledge of negative cues.
In tandem with a lowered anterior insula response, the positivity bias along with many other factors could account for older adults’ increased susceptibility to fraud.
However, positivity bias is not a negative thing.
“It’s not a bad adaptive response, because it helps against the loss of loved ones, loss of control or loss of choice in where you live,” Miller said.
Another study to investigate trustworthiness versus untrustworthiness is underway, headed by Castle and Taylor. The study will involve videos in order to better simulate a real-life situation.
Until more research comes out about the anterior insula response or other factors responsible for susceptibility to fraud, older adults will have to keep a sharp eye out for con men trying to take advantage of them.
“Some strategies [to avoid fraud] are to always delay your response. Give yourself time to distance yourself. Basically, give yourself time to rationalize through the pros and cons. This is the number one way to prevent fraud,” Moons said.
In addition, consulting other adults of varying age ranges could also contribute to more informed decision making.
If gut instinct is failing, it helps to avoid situations where it needs to be relied on. Do not fall for those “free” events designed to lure people in, and simply just say “no.”
For more information go to aarp.org/money/scams-fraud.
VICTORIA TRANG can be reached at email@example.com.