Research: Older Brains Can’t Spot Scams. (Really?)


Reports on new research that suggests our brains lose the capacity to spot a scam as we age have been flying around the Internet this week, with headlines like “Why the elderly fall victim to scams: Blame the aging brain” and “Elderly brains can’t process scams.” The study, conducted by  Shelley Taylor, a psychologist at UCLA, looked for reasons why the average age of fraud victims is 69 and financial exploitation robbed people older than 60 of more than $2.9 billion in 2010.

Focusing on visual clues, Taylor and her team showed a group of people over 55 and a group of 20-somethings more than 50 photographs of faces – including several that had been pre-identified as shifty looking. The older group tended to rate the shifty faces as trustworthy; the younger people nailed them as not to be trusted. A follow-up study that looked at brain circuitry showed less activity among older people in the area of the brain that processes risk and subtle danger.

The takeaway, as reported by most media outlets, is that as we age (Taylor identifies 60 as the time when the trouble starts), we must compensate for our more scammable brains by staying away from any situation where we might be duped. But might there be other factors at play here besides irreversible brain decay? A report on the study published by NPR points to a couple.

Number one: Our tendency, as we age, to adopt a less negative attitude – or as Taylor calls it, “a positivity bias.” She says, “It’s part of this effort to make life more positive after a certain point in life, which is normally just a wonderful thing.” Which means we can learn to be more negative when a stranger calls offering a special deal on home repair.

Number two: We’re more likely than younger people to open junk mail. This is probably  because we are not digital natives like those 20-year-olds, and not simply because our aging brains have lost the capacity to judge. Trashing junk mail is a learnable skill.

If you want to learn about the the types of scams that are trapping people as they browse the web, check the invaluable website, which has a section on fake emails and websites that collect your personal information – including currently an email purporting to come from the Better Business Bureau. Click through a few of these to update your brain on the variety of formats and ruses used by scammers. Next time you receive a questionable email, you’ll be better equipped to evaluate it. Then read our article, “Protecting Your Info from Cybercrooks.”

Brains may age, but knowledge is power.



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