Scam artists exploit elders’ vulnerability to false memories

Given a misleading cue, adults over age 64 were 10 times more likely than younger adults to falsely remember wrong as right

Especially if you’re older, get everything in writing, from estimates to receipts.

Psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis report that the memory function of people in their mid-60s and up is easily swayed by the power of suggestion, making them more vulnerable to memory-related scams. Their study appears in the May issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology (JEP): General, which is published by the American Psychological Association.

Older people are prone to scam artists. Get everything in writing, WUSTL psychologists say.

For example, an unscrupulous contractor can tell an older customer, “I told you it would cost [a much higher price than was originally quoted] and you agreed to pay!” Without a written estimate, the customer is likely to “remember” it that way, too, and be overcharged. Another scam, “you forgot to pay me,” also underscores the need for written receipts. Some con artists even run their own rudimentary memory tests on the elderly, checking to see if their memory is bad enough to make them good victims.

To understand why older people are more easily misled, co-author Larry L. Jacoby, Ph.D., Washington University professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, and his colleagues compared groups of 24 older adults (average age 75) with groups of 24 younger adults (average age 19).

Participants studied lists of paired related words, such as knee bone. Afterwards, they viewed new lists of paired words, some the same as before, some different, and some with only one of the two words the same. In those cases, the “prime” word, which was presented immediately prior to the test, was plausible but incorrect (knee bend, not bone).

The psychologists compared how older and younger participants responded to invalid prime words.

The older adults were far more likely than the younger adults to “falsely” remember the invalid prime as correct. Remembering wrong as right mimics what might happen after a false claim of “I told you so … .”

Confirming the age difference, the older adults were 10 times more likely than young adults to accept the wrong word and falsely “remember” earlier studying that word.

This was true even though older adults had more time to study the list of word pairs and attained a performance level equal to that of the young adults when given an unprimed test. Old and young were equated in their performance on unprimed tests — tests for which a prime was not presented.

Larry L. Jacoby
Larry L. Jacoby

What’s more, when told they had the option to “pass” when unsure of an answer, older adults rarely used the option. Younger adults did, greatly reducing their false recall.

The older adults unwittingly further reduced their accuracy because, as Jacoby explains, “They did not know that they did not know. They falsely remembered having studied the invalid prime, and one does not opt out when one falsely remembers.”

These new experiments revealed that older people are significantly more vulnerable to the general “misinformation effect,” which in its general form was discovered 30 years ago.

Given the new findings, if given false information after an event, older adults’ memory for that event is more likely to be distorted or impaired.

Finding those most vulnerable

Jacoby says this kind of memory naiveté may reflect how the frontal cortex declines with age. However, he emphasizes that not all older adults show the greater vulnerability to false remembering, pointing out, “There is a great deal of variability among older adults.”

The researchers hope to see a battery of tests emerge to identify older adults who are most vulnerable to memory scams.

Tests of individual differences would steal a page from criminal lore. Jacoby explains: “Scam artists buy lists of victims from one another, showing that they believe there are important individual differences that result in some being more vulnerable to scams.”

The findings reflect real-world reports of a rising incidence of scams perpetrated on the elderly. But, “one does not want to always live life as a skeptic,” Jacoby comments. “It is better to do things such as get a written estimate of repair costs, keep records of who has been paid, and check the reputation of a repair person with the Better Business Bureau.”

Jacoby’s co-researchers are graduate students Anthony J. Bishara and Sandra Hessels, and Jeffrey P. Toth, Ph.D., research assistant professor, all from the psychology department at Washington University.

The full text of their article, “Aging, Subjective Experience, and Cognitive Control: Dramatic False Remembering by Older Adults,” is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at