Seniors lean dangerously toward the bright side: Research shows older adults are too trusting
By Vanessa De La Rosa
Many of us might know or have heard of victims of financial conmen or greedy guardians, which should lead us to ask the big question: Why is it that older adults more trusting than younger adults when meeting strangers or questionable “helpers”?
It’s inevitable: As we age, our bodies decline, as do our cognitive abilities. Memories fade, once-easy tasks become more cumbersome and attention spans shrivel. Yes, I know. “Thanks for the reminder, Vanessa.” But there’s also a bright side to aging — although it, too, may be blinding.
As we get older, we find it easier to spot rays of sunshine in our lives, according to a series of studies piloted by Professor Laura Carstensen from Stanford University and her colleagues. Carstensen suggests seniors tend to process positive emotions better than negative ones — the “positivity effect.”
The evidence has been supported by many cognitive psychological studies. The best example is one by Mather and Carstensen (2003), in which people sit in front of a computer and are shown two faces on the screen for one second. One face is neutral and the other is either happy or sad. The faces are removed, and in one of their places stands a dot. Then, each person must recall which face previously stood where the dot appears. In younger adults, there was no difference in average reaction times (they were about even) between noting the positive and negative faces.
But for the older adults, an entirely different pattern arose. Reaction times suggest that the elderly were more likely to focus on the positive faces over the negative and neutral faces, and the neutral over the negative; the older adults were more likely to look at the happier of the two faces. In short, one might say that seniors are inclined to focus more on positivity. However, a person biased toward positive outcomes can be easily duped. Tragic headlines about an older adult being misled by a malevolent caregiver or advisor are far too common. Older adults tend to be more trusting than their younger counterparts, overlooking certain visual and physical cues that might suggest ill intent or abuse.
According to the National Center of Elder Abuse’s Fact Sheet on Elder Abuse Prevalence and Incidence, it is estimated that “between one and two million Americans age 65 or older have been injured, exploited or otherwise mistreated by someone on whom they depended for care or protection.” The data suggests that 1 in 14 incidents of abuse in domestic settings are actually reported to authorities, estimating that for every case of abuse, neglect or exploitation, about five more go unreported. In 2003, state Long-Term Care Ombudsman programs conducted a national investigation of “20,673 complaints of abuse, gross neglect and exploitation on behalf of nursing home and board and care residents.”
The most common type of elder abuse reported was physical, but the study also highlighted the prevalence of financial exploitation. The National Center for Elder Abuse estimates that only 1 in 25 cases of financial elder abuse are reported each year — totaling at least five million financial abuse victims annually. A study published by the Metlife Mature Market Institute and the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse agrees that financial exploitation of elders is rising. The study’s range of abuse includes: fraud perpetrated by strangers; financial abuse by family, friends and neighbors; exploitation within the business sector; and Medicare and Medicaid fraud. The annual financial loss was estimated to be at least $2.9 billion dollars. The most common form of financial abuse? Theft or diversion of funds by family members.
Many of us might know or have heard of victims of financial conmen or greedy guardians, which should lead us to ask the big question: Why is it that older adults more trusting than younger adults when meeting strangers or questionable “helpers”? New research, published two weeks ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has shed light on this question. Led by UCLA professor Shelley Taylor and other researchers, the series of studies found that an area of the brain that triggers gut feelings when assessing someone’s appearance to determine his or her trustworthiness — the anterior insula —did not fire when older adults were shown photographs of suspicious-looking people.
When younger study participants labeled someone in a photograph “not trustworthy,” their anterior insulas lit up on brain scans. But for older adults (ages 55-80), the anterior insula was mute when viewing the same photographs. Similar results occurred throughout other facets of the research, which suggests that this helpful guardian built into our anatomy begins to wither as the rest of our body does, too.
What does this mean for advisors and agents? Well, although it suggests that the trust of senior clients is more easily gained, it also highlights how thin the ice can be when it comes to advising and guiding an older client. It’s essential to make sure he or she understands the processes and is fully aware of consequences and outcomes. To confirm that their trust is built on their best interests, have the client’s guardian, lawyer or broker present in meetings and consultations, and if possible, audio- or video-record these conversations. Keep an eye out for anyone in your client’s circle of influence that might be less than trustworthy, and above all, make absolutely sure you do not take advantage of such liberal positivity.