Given misleading cues, older adults are more likely to 'remember' that misinformation

May 15, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Especially if you're older, get everything in writing, from estimates to receipts. Psychologists at Washington University 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. A full report appears in the May issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology (JEP): General, which is published by the American Psychological Association.

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 Jacoby, PhD, 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]

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.

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."
Article: "Aging, Subjective Experience, and Cognitive Control: Dramatic False Remembering by Older Adults;" Larry L. Jacoby, PhD, Anthony J. Bishara, PhD, Sandra Hessels, MA, and Jeffrey P. Toth, PhD; Washington University; Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol. 134, No. 2.

(Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and at

Larry Jacoby can be reached at Washington University in St. Louis at or at (314) 935-6795.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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