Phoebe Bailey’s research paradigm invited 72 Australian participants to complete a series of 30 trading game trials alone via a computer, in the knowledge that one random trial would pay off with real cash. In each trial, participants and their trading partner – an absent "trustee" – each began with an initial stake of Australian $5. First, the participant chose whether to entrust $0-5 to the trustee, and second, the trustee could return any amount back to the participant. Anything entrusted or returned was doubled in value by the computer, meaning that both parties could in theory come out on top by trading, but participants could also be easily betrayed by a trustee who returned them nothing.
Each trial involved a different trustee, who was distinguished using onscreen information, in the form of a grid of information that summarised whether the trustee had a generous (for half of the trustees) or mean track record in their past trials of the game with other participants. The researchers found that older adults (mostly aged between 70 and 80) compared to the youngsters (in their early twenties) made bigger hand-overs to trustees who had a grid depicting a mean track-record: that is, they were more likely to entrust money knowing that history suggested they might not see it again.
This tendency to trust was predicted by the researchers, as there are good theoretical reasons for it to emerge. There is some evidence of differential processing of low-trust cues by older adults in emotional brain areas. On a psychological level, age-related positivity may be due to people more actively pursuing desired experiences as the sands of time run out; while this can certainly include ambitious Bucket Lists, the simple experience of emotional connection to other human beings is desirable and may become more sought after when material goods become less salient (“you can’t take it with you”). Under this view, older people aren’t being irrational when they take greater trust-related risks, they are simply making a different kind of gamble because the trusting payoff means more to them. In this study, older people may feel no need to “sweat the small stuff”, and prefer to make 30 people feel there was someone nice at the other end of one trial, payoffs be damned.
It’s important to note that the researchers had expected another age-related effect – for older people to be swayed also by trustworthy facial features in mugshots presented alongside some of the grids. However, this effect didn’t emerge, possibly because it was swamped by the objectively more reliable grid information.
It strikes me as fairly healthy to forego small financial gains to feel altruistic and give someone a second chance. However, if the tendency to take trust-related risks generalises beyond this context, it could be a factor that makes older adults attractive targets for charlatans and fraudsters, especially when they offer the chance of meaningful connections.
Bailey, P., Szczap, P., McLennan, S., Slessor, G., Ruffman, T., & Rendell, P. (2015). Age-related similarities and differences in first impressions of trustworthiness Cognition and Emotion, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2015.1039493
Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.