Senior author Shelley E. Taylor, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues said the study involved 119 older adults ages 55-84 and 24 younger adults mean age 23 who looked at 30 photographs of faces and rated them on how trustworthy and approachable they seemed. The faces were intentionally selected to look trustworthy, neutral or untrustworthy.
What does an untrustworthy face look like? The smile is insincere, the eye contact is off; it's a gestalt, Taylor said.
The younger and older adults reacted very similarly to the trustworthy faces and to the neutral faces. However, when viewing the untrustworthy faces, the younger adults reacted strongly, while the older adults did not. The older adults saw these faces as more trustworthy and more approachable than the younger adults did.
"The consequences of misplaced trust for older adults are severe," Taylor said in a statement.
"A recent study estimated adults age 60 and older lost at least $2.9 billion in 2010 to financial exploitation, ranging from home repair scams to complex financial swindles. This figure represents a 12 percent increase from 2008."
Taylor said her own father in his mid-70s was walked to the bank by someone he referred to as "such a nice man," and gave him $6,000, but he didn't pick up that the man was homeless.
The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.