We seem to see new stories every day about an older adult being taken advantage of by unscrupulous salesperson, or maybe even buy their relative. Is it really the case that older adults are less able to detect lying and deceit?

The Frontal lobe hypothesis

Natalie Denberg and her colleagues at the University of Iowa and the University of Southern California were concerned about the rising number of fraud cases that appear to occur with older adults.

Denberg’s work relies on what has been called the Frontal lobe hypothesis of aging
this hypothesis suggests that as people age changes occur in the prefrontal brain. Structures that undermine fundamental cognitive functions related to decision-making.

In some adults these changes are disproportionately high. In the Denberg study three groups were shown an advertisement for Legacy luggage that had been reported as deceptive by the Federal Trade Commission.

The limited disclosure version

The three group shown the ad included a group of younger adults, age ranges from 26 to 55, a group of older adults with regular cognitive capacities, these were folks age ranges from 56 to 85, and then a group of older adults same age 56 to 85.

But those who have been shown to have a common often seen reduction in cognitive capacities, and this was judged by a separate task. Two versions of the Legacy luggage ad were shown, a full disclosure version and a limited disclosure version.

Let me explain those too. In the full disclosure version the caption under the luggage read “Legacy brings you the finest American quality luggage. After manufacture in Mexico each piece is carefully inspected in Tennessee at our corporate headquarters before shipping do you.”

In the limited disclosure version the same text was used with the exception of an omission of the phrase “in Mexico”. That particular wording was ruled by the FTC to be misleading as is likely to convey to consumers that the luggage is a product of US origin, but recall it was manufactured in Mexico and only inspected in Tennessee.

How do the various groups do?

With the full disclosure, all three groups picked up the luggage was not actually manufactured in the US. In the limited disclosure condition though the older impaired group was significantly more likely to believe the luggage was made in the US, and as part of that study the researchers asked about purchase intention.

How likely would you be buy this particular product and with limited disclosure of the older impaired group had significantly higher purchase intentions than the other two groups?

So older adults who were experiencing a natural decline in cognitive functioning are less likely to pick up on deceptive advertising and thus more likely to be influenced to make a purchase. This makes older adults who were experiencing cognitive decline a target of choice for unethical agents.