Honesty is the only policy for seniors

By Elliot Brennan 3 June 2011
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Older adults are found to be worse liars and lie detectors than their younger counterparts.

GRANDMAS AND GRANDPAS THE world over have long been viewed as easy prey for con artists and fraudsters.

A new study being undertaken by Ted Ruffman, Janice Murray and Jamin Halberstadt, from New Zealand’s University of Otago, has found older adults are worse at detecting lies than young people. The research also suggests seniors have difficulty lying as persuasively as their younger counterparts.

“We know that our working memory gets worse with age,” says Associate Professor Ted Ruffman. “Our ability to spot a lie, and to lie, seems to be affected by this decline.”

As part of the study, two groups of participants were asked to watch videos of each other and to record whether they thought the speakers were lying or being truthful.

The two groups, one comprising participants aged about 21 years old, and the other made up of people in their 60s and 70s, found it easier to differentiate lies from truth when the speaker was an older adult. Seniors were less convincing at disguising the truth with deceit, and less able to distinguish whether the other participants were lying or telling the truth. 

“As we often see in other studies, older adults didn’t score as well as younger people,” Associate Professor Jamin Halberstadt says. “It could be that older people are less convincing liars because the kinds of cognitive abilities required for successful deceit are also those that tend to deteriorate with age.”

Seniors don’t recognise lying signs in voice and body language

Scientists still don’t know exactly how we detect when someone is lying. However, this study suggests that analysing ‘micro-expressions’, a method of lie detection made popular by the television series Lie to Me, is not as crucial as previous studies would have us believe.  Rather, Jamin says, “emotion recognition also involves auditory and body-language aspects, so the giveaway signals might additionally, or instead, be heard in the voice or seen in emotions expressed through the body”.

A lessened ability to detect liars may leave people more susceptible to being ripped off. “In the UK there is a type of fraud called ‘distraction burglary’, where one burglar distracts the homeowner at the front door and another goes in the back,” says Ted. “The victim is almost always over 60 years.”
“As well as problems arising from being more easily deceived, a reduced ability to tell white lies that spare others’ feelings may impair their relationships,” adds Jamin.

Dr Briony Dow, director of the Preventive and Public Health Division at the National Ageing Research Institute in Melbourne, is intrigued by the new findings. “People become more themselves as they age – meaning they are less inclined to dissemble, feign interest or hide their true feelings in social situations but I have always seen this as a positive thing; they are more genuine and interesting,” she says.
“The apparent ‘non-recognition’ of social cues found in the Otago study could be explained by an attitude of not caring what others think – in my experience older people are more willing to share their stories honestly and are less swayed by the opinions of others,” says Briony.

Ted, Janice and Jamin’s research paper will soon be published in the US journal Psychology and Ageing.