January 2013

Trust Rises With Age

Older adults are more likely than younger ones to perceive dishonest faces as trustworthy. The new findings help explain why older people are more likely to fall victim to fraud.

Up to 80% of scam victims are over 65, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. Some experts suspect that older people are more vulnerable to fraud because they are more trusting than younger adults.

A team led by Dr. Shelley Taylor at the University of California, Los Angeles, set out to explore whether older adults judge trustworthiness differently from younger adults. Photographs of faces selected to look trustworthy, neutral or untrustworthy were shown to 119 older adults (ages 55 to 84) and 24 younger adults (ages 20 to 42). The participants were asked to rate each face based on how trustworthy or approachable it seemed. The scientists also used functional MRI to look at brain activity.

Neutral faces and faces high in trust cues were rated similarly by both groups. However, older adults were significantly more likely than younger ones to rate untrustworthy faces as trustworthy.

The brain scans also revealed significant differences between the age groups. An area associated with “gut feelings” became more active in the younger people at the sight of an untrustworthy face. But older subjects showed little to no activation in this area. More study will be needed to understand why.

Misplaced trust can have dire consequences, especially when it comes to financial fraud. “Older adults seem to be particularly vulnerable to interpersonal solicitations, and their reduced sensitivity to cues related to trust may partially underlie this vulnerability,” Taylor says.