Emotional Arousal May Increase Susceptibility to Fraud in Older Adults


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Older adults are disproportionately targeted by scams and fraud. A common tactic used by scam artists is evoking powerful emotions in their targets to persuade them to comply. Emotional arousal— whether through fear, excitement, or anger — may act to override rational decision-making. Given age-related increases in attention to emotionally significant information, older adults may be more susceptible to these effects than younger adults.

With funding support from the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, Stanford University researchers investigated whether inducing emotional arousal in young and old adults affects their vulnerability to fraud. Drs. Katharina Kircanski and Nanna Notthoff, under the direction of Dr. Ian Gotlib, developed a laboratory task that assesses the effects of high-arousal positive and negative emotions – excitement and anger, respectively – on responses to false advertising. They administered this task to both older and younger adults. Highlights from the study include:

• Both high-arousal positive and high-arousal negative emotions significantly increase older adults’ intention to purchase falsely advertised items.

• Emotional arousal was not significant for young adults, although     older and younger adults do not significantly differ with respect to the overall pattern of effects.

• In younger adults, inducing high-arousal emotions produces similar, but less pronounced (and not statistically significant) effects.

• In contrast to younger adults, older adults’ intention to purchase falsely advertised items is not based on their perceived credibility (‘believability’), but on the induction of high-arousal emotions

These emotion-inducing tasks were designed to simulate the tactics used by scam artists. Findings provide evidence that older adults may be at greater risk.

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