Study: heightened emotional states leave the elderly more vulnerable to fraud

Emotion has an impact on the decision-making process.

  • In 2016, scientists at Stanford found that emotional older adults were more vulnerable to fraud.
  • It's just one study of many that have appeared over the past two years examining this dynamic.
  • It's useful to think about this as the Midterm Elections approach.


Anger and lies travel faster and further online than the truth. Studies have sussed out which states were exposed to a higher level of online nonsense than others during the last Presidential election. Studies have looked at Fox News's influence on the vote. But it's also worth flagging a study that came out of Stanford in 2016 as the 2018 midterm elections approach: heightened emotional states increase susceptibility to fraud in older adults.

This has been proven in behavioral studies: in 2016, 138 participants were given a test where they had to hit a spacebar at a certain time. If they did it 'right,' they won money. If they didn't do it right, they lost money. The game-play was tilted in such a way as to impact emotion: certain games were arranged to create excitement and anger. As noted in the study —

… participants in the excitement group initially lost a large amount of money, and then gradually won money, over the course of each block. In contrast, participants in the anger group initially won a large amount of money, and then gradually lost money, over the course of each block. Participants in the neutral group won or lost only very small amounts of money throughout each block.

Test participants were then shown one of 8 ads that had been previously labeled false by the FTC and then asked whether or not they would buy the product falsely advertised. Excited and angered older adults expressed a greater desire to buy the advertised items than a neutral. Younger adults only expressed a greater interest in buying the product if they believed the product was 'credible.'

This has also been proven neurologically: in 2017, scientists looking at older adults who have been victims of financial fraud found that "cortical thinning in anterior insula and posterior superior temporal cortices, regions associated with processing affective and social information, respectively" (though the authors of this particular study want to see a large-scale study done to confirm their findings.) Older adults have been shown to have anxiety when it comes to seeking out finance-related help. And a meta-analysis of 12 studies focusing on older adults and financial fraud featuring 41,711 individuals found that fraud has an impact on 1 in 18 individuals, potentially even more.

And yet older adults display more trust than younger adults after they learn that they've been betrayed.

That level of fraud has an impact: it's estimated that older adults lose nearly 2.9 billion dollars because of fraud, per a 2017 report, a 12% increase in fraud since 2008.

Now take the basic outline of these findings and put them into the news landscape as it exists online, an extension of a business model built to make old people afraid, where over two million tweets on the 'Migrant Caravan' send between October 23rd and October 26th were examined by a group called 'New Knowledge,' who found that "the most high volume, hyperactive accounts on social media are more likely to share conspiracy theories, while low-volume accounts link to mainstream outlets. Even when it's not 'bots,' this asymmetry gives the conspiracy groups outsized impact on public conversation."

What sort of health measures are being taken to help older adults not be exposed to fraud? "Assessment tools must be created," Stacey Wood and Peter Lichtenberg argue, "empirically tested, and widely used by both criminal justice and non-criminal justice professionals."

Does that mean that social networks are then stepping up to deal with the issue while people think about what sort of tools they can develop? It depends where you look: if you look at the Instagram mentions of the current occupant of The White House, you might be concerned; there's been some success going after disinformation that targets veterans, but the fact there was so much to go after is reason enough for concern; and there has been so much more that would otherwise occupy the rest of the space in this article.

Though discouraging, it's worth noting what Kate Starbird noted about The Knight Foundation's analysis of some of the 10 million tweets of misinformation sent during the last Presidential election: "Accounts that spread fake news are densely connected."

In other words: though it feels like something that comes out of nowhere and might not be something you'd recognize right away — think about the 'backlash' to The Last Jedi — there is a specificity here. There is a known factor, which means that — in the future — someone won't have to approach the internet with a perspective of 'Buyer Beware.'

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