Facing wolves in sheep’s clothing: How younger and older adults differ in trust-related decision-making and learning

Facial cues impact trust decisions. This study emphasizes the need to recognize age-related challenges in integrating conflicting information between social cues (facial trustworthiness) and behavioral outcomes (payouts in a card game) for trust decisions.
Facing wolves in sheep’s clothing: How younger and older adults differ in trust-related decision-making and learning

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Investigating Trust-Related Decision-Making and Learning Across Adulthood 

Have you ever considered how trust affects the decisions you make? Consider a scenario in which a salesperson knocks at your door. Before their sales pitch is over, you may have already formed a first impression of who they are and what they want from you, including whether you find them trustworthy or not. We form immediate first impressions of the social attributes of others, including trustworthiness, based on facial appearances. However, facial trustworthiness is not a reliable indicator of how trustworthy someone actually is. It is also unclear how facial trustworthiness can influence our learning and decisions to trust others over time. In some cases, individuals who initially appear trustworthy can behave contrary to your expectations and vice versa. This phenomenon becomes even more critical as we consider how older adults initially perceive trustworthiness and learn to trust others, as they are at an increased risk of financial exploitation and are often targeted by schemes that manipulate trust.  

As described in the paper, we examined the influence of trustworthy and untrustworthy faces on decision-making and learning. Our investigation involved two key decision-making tasks: the standard Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) and its newly developed social variant (S-IGT). The participant pool consisted of 143 younger adults (aged 18-30) and 129 older adults (aged 65-80). Each age group was presented with decks of cards and was instructed to select cards to maximize points. In the standard IGT task, these decks were normal playing cards, while in the S-IGT task, the decks were paired with independently rated trustworthy and untrustworthy faces. In the S-IGT, younger and older participants made decisions based on trustworthy and untrustworthy faces that were paired with positive or negative outcomes (payout in the game). While initial impressions from faces are quick, they often do not hold up under scrutiny and decisions can be swayed by initial bias. By analyzing the choices participants made during these tasks, we gained insights into how younger and older adults balanced facial cues with actual outcomes. This approach helped us understand age-related differences in decision-making adaptability, especially when faced with congruent and incongruent cues. 

Younger and Older Adults Initially Prefer Trustworthy Faces 

One striking observation that emerged from our study was the initial preference for trustworthy faces, a tendency noted across both younger and older adults. This inclination highlights a fundamental aspect of human social interaction: the reliance on facial cues to guide initial decisions. However, what set the age groups apart was their adaptability in decision-making when confronted with incongruent facial cues – untrustworthy faces paired with advantageous outcomes. Although both younger and older participants initially preferred trustworthy faces, older adults experienced greater difficulty in this task over time, especially when facial cues did not match the expected outcomes (i.e., when trustworthy faces led to a greater loss of points than untrustworthy faces). Findings from this study underscore the real-world challenges older adults are often confronted with when interacting with others who intend to deceive or exploit them, referred to as ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing.’ Identifying who is genuinely trustworthy may depend on one's ability to juggle multiple, sometimes conflicting pieces of information—an ability that appears to decline with age. 

Younger and Older Adults Differ in Navigating Incongruent Social Cues 

While both age groups initially favored trustworthy faces, older adults encountered greater difficulties when facial cues did not align with expected outcomes. They struggled to adjust their decision-making when confronted with contradictory information. This finding has significant implications, especially for older adults who are often targeted by deceptive individuals. The challenges older adults encounter in revising their trust evaluations may underlie their greater vulnerability to financial exploitation and scams. 

In contrast to older adults, younger adults were more capable of adjusting their evaluations when presented with changing social information. Being able to learn from feedback and adapt decisions are valuable cognitive skills for navigating a dynamic and rapidly evolving social environment effectively. These results suggest that younger adults may be more adaptable to incongruent social cues than older adults and can better adjust their trust judgments as needed. 

The Impact of Congruent Social Cues on Decision-Making and Learning

In scenarios where facial cues were congruent with outcomes, all participants, regardless of age, demonstrated comparable performance. However, congruency between facial trustworthiness and outcomes did not significantly enhance decision-making over time. Therefore, though we may rely on facial cues for initial trust assessments, these cues may not always serve as reliable indicators for long-term decision-making. Instead, our findings highlighted a tendency among participants towards satisficing – or settling for an adequate option rather than an optimal one – in decisions based on congruent social cues.  


In conclusion, our investigation sheds light on the nuanced ways in which facial cues influence trust-related decision-making and learning across adulthood. Key findings include the preference for trustworthy faces, the challenges older adults face with incongruent social cues, and younger adults’ enhanced adaptability in decision-making. Our findings emphasize the significance of facial trustworthiness in initial judgments and the challenges older adults experience in revising these first impressions. These insights from our work are also crucial for developing social interventions and understanding how age influences the detection of deceptive cues, which can lead to improvements in relationships with others as well as advancements in care, financial protections, and social policy geared towards older adults.

Let's close by taking a moment to reflect on the trust cues we typically rely on and how they can shape our choices. Are there times when we should question our initial judgments? Can we become more adaptable in how we evaluate trustworthiness in others? These questions challenge us to not only understand the complexities of trust but also to actively engage in improving our decision-making so that we all can face the 'wolves in sheep's clothing' with confidence and discernment. 

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Decision Making
Humanities and Social Sciences > Behavioral Sciences and Psychology > Cognitive Psychology > Cognition > Decision Making
Cognitive Psychology
Humanities and Social Sciences > Behavioral Sciences and Psychology > Cognitive Psychology

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