Feature

Before you sign the lease on that bridge in Brooklyn, chat with psychologist Larry Jacoby, PhD. It could be that you're reaching "a certain age" and, according to him, that means you're more vulnerable to scams.

Deteriorating memory is to blame--those same declines cause people, as they age, to search for words or to repeat a story over and over, he told the audience at his APA Annual 2001 Convention Master Lecture, "Aging, subjective experience and cognitive control: effects of accessibility bias."

What happens, he proposes, is that our ability to recall specifics declines with age, so we rely on a more automatic form of memory that's based on using details that are most accessible--say something we just heard on television--though maybe not most accurate. This automatic, unintentional memory is particularly susceptible to suggestion, his research finds. So a scam artist might say, "As we discussed earlier, you agreed to pay $5,000 for my services." That suggestion may be enough to make an elderly person--unable to recall the original quote--believe that he or she agreed to the inflated price.

"These automatic influences of memory can mislead the elderly person and make them mistakenly think that they remember something that actually didn't happen," said Jacoby, professor of psychology at Washington University and one of the foremost researchers of automatic and consciously controlled use of memory.

He built his theory of memory aging on more than 20 years of basic research that demonstrates the power of the unconscious, automatic form of memory. Many experiences, he surmised, trigger this type of memory but often our more conscious form of memory keeps it in check. For example, when we tell a story, it becomes more accessible and the automatic form of memory pushes us to tell it again. But we don't because we remember we already told it. The more often we tell a story, the more pressure the automatic form of memory exerts, Jacoby proposes.

In addition, he adds, because aging degrades conscious memory, the more automatic process works unopposed, and the storyteller is more likely to bring the story up again. Although certainly irritating for the grandchildren, repeating a story several times causes no great harm. But, as Jacoby sees it, the mechanisms that cause those memory lapses are also behind older people's susceptibility to certain types of scams, particularly those that use the power of suggestion.

To test this idea, Jacoby used a procedure modeled on "as-I-told-you-before" statements of the sort that pervade life for many of us, and often play a role in memory scams directed at the elderly. In his experiments, young and elderly participants studied a list of word pairs. Then, immediately before being tested on their memory for the list, they saw a "prime" that was meant to mislead memory performance in the same way a false "I told you" statement would.

The misleading prime had little influence on young participants' ability to remember the information they had studied earlier. Even when they mistakenly produced the prime as a response, they almost always said they were "guessing" as opposed to "remembering" the answers.

In contrast, older adults much more often mistakenly produced the misleading prime instead of words from the list they studied earlier. And, they frequently claimed to "remember" having studied the misleading prime. In other words, older participants were far more likely to falsely remember than young participants.

Even when Jacoby and his colleagues told study participants to ignore the prime because it might be misleading, older people still use the prime rather than the correct answer. "The elderly are less flexible in being able to ignore the prime," said Jacoby.

Such vulnerability to false remembering leaves older adults susceptible to scams, argued Jacoby. However, he noted, older adults vary greatly in memory performance, with some older adults no more prone to false remembering than young adults. It's likely only those most prone to false remembering who are particularly at risk for memory scams.

Jacoby's experiments agree with a growing and fairly large literature converging on the idea that age-related memory problems have a host of consequences beyond merely forgetfulness.

Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.