Consumer Fraud and the Aging Mind

Authors: Denise C. Park, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

Publication: Scientific Testimony Presented to The Senate Special Committee on Aging

Year: 2005

Focus Area: Prevention, Decision Making

Relevance: The author outlines the vulnerabilities associated with a gradually degenerating mind and some of the communication strategies that can help marketers, public policy makers, and advocacy groups overcome them.

Summary: Cognitive systems begin to deteriorate in one’s 20’s, and continue to worsen over time.

  • Information is processed more slowly
  • Memory becomes less effective
  • The ability to process large quantities of information simultaneously decreases

Stored knowledge is used as a buffer against this increasing “cognitive frailty”.  When unexpectedly approach by a fraudster, older adults are more likely to be overwhelmed, increasing their vulnerability.

  • Older adults focus on the positive and ignore the negative aspects of a message, and are thus more likely to overlook warning signs of fraud.
  • Older adults tend to remember the gist of information rather than the specifics, and that vague familiarity increases their susceptibility.
  • Older consumers who are warned about the falseness of a particular fraudulent offer are more likely to believe the offer is true at a later date, due to the familiarity of the claim.  Familiarity trumps fact.

Author Abstract: Good afternoon, Chairman Smith, Senator Kohl, and other members of the Committee. My name is Denise Park. I am a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at the Beckman Institute, which is part of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I direct the Roybal Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Illinois, a Center funded by the National Institute on Aging that is designed to take the results of basic laboratory research on aging and determine how these results can be used to improve function in older adults in their every day lives. I have also been involved with the NIH by just completing a stint chairing an NIH Review Panel for the past several years and I also just completed a term on the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Society.

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