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As people grow old, they tend to concentrate more on the positive. As a result, they may be more likely to get ripped off.
The quest to understand why the elderly fall for scams has long focused on their cognitive decline, particularly with diseases such as Alzheimer's or dementia. But now scientists are looking for that answer elsewhere: in the so-called socio-emotional shifts in the brain that unfold as we age.
"We're less likely to pay attention to the negative," said Nathan Spreng, director of the Laboratory of Brain and Cognition at Cornell University's Department of Human Development. "We're not as vigilant against threat."
When Spreng read a Journal of General Internal Medicine study on elder abuse in New York that found more than half of financial exploitation is carried out by a person the victim knew, he wondered: Just how well are older adults navigating the complexities of their social environment?
"It wasn't necessarily the spammer from Nigeria," he said. "It's far more prevalent that it's your grandson or daughter-in-law."
The results of his inquiry appeared in the Journals of Gerontology: Medical Sciences last year. Spreng and his co-authors found that as we get older, changes to the brain occur in regions that help us decide whether or not to trust someone, leaving us less likely to notice deceit.
That's because as we age, our brain shrinks, he said. Less brain means less of that signaling people describe as a "gut feeling" that something may be amiss.
In addition, connectivity of the brain — for example, how the insula talks to the temporal lobe — also fades as we travel through the decades, Spreng said. This, too, can make it harder for older people to pick up on and avoid potentially sinister intentions.
Socio-emotional changes with age can also make us more vulnerable to online phishing attacks, according to a forthcoming study in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.
(A phishing attack is when a hacker tricks a person into handing over their personal information or downloading malicious software. In 2016, 1 in 131 emails contained malware, the highest rate in five years, according to digital security company Symantec.)
"If something seems to be a nice invitation to join a group, I might ignore warning cues," said Natalie Ebner, a University of Florida psychology professor and one of the phishing study's lead researchers.
Indeed, during the experiment, subjects ages 75 to 89 who also exhibited some signs of memory impairment were more likely than younger people to click on a suspicious email that would leave their personal data vulnerable to criminals.
Ebner suspects that the socio-emotional changes we experience with age haven't been studied much until now because it goes against our understanding of getting older as a "decline model." In other words, we can't easily believe that some things actually get better with age.
But she hopes the area gains more attention so that older people can understand and then implement protections against their "positivity bias."
"It's great to only be attending to positive, compared to negative, things in life. But if it's your son trying to lie to you and you don't pick up on it, then that's a problem," Ebner said.