We’ve all received the pitch in the mail: Transfer your credit card balance to a new card at a lower interest rate. The catch: Payments on the new card will be applied first to the transferred balance; meanwhile, a higher interest rate is applied to new purchases–and payments are applied to that balance only after the transferred amount is paid off.
The solution is a no-brainer, right? Keep using your old card for new purchases until you’ve paid off the transferred balance on the new one. But research shows that cardholders of varying ages aren’t equally proficient at figuring that out. One-third of cardholders will get it immediately–what researchers call the “eureka moment”–while another one-third never get it right.
Cardholders age 35-44 are most likely to have the eureka moment, because they’re young enough to have acquired some financial smarts and still have most of their cognitive faculties intact.
A growing body of evidence suggests that the aging brain isn’t well-suited to financial decision-making. Roughly half of adults in their 80s suffer from dementia or cognitive decline that impacts financial management skills, according to David Laibson, an economics professor at Harvard University and co-author of a research report with three other economic and financial experts on aging and reasoning ability. Laibson laid out the worrisome findings at the recent Morningstar Investment Conference.
Other researchers have documented characteristics of poor decision-making in the elderly that leave them vulnerable to the marketing tactics of fraudulent and abusive financial services. A research team at the University of Iowa points toward problems with complex decision-making in some older adults who haven’t been diagnosed with any specific neurological or psychiatric diseases.
“Many older people experience far more dramatic declines in cognitive abilities that are not related to memory, such as concentration, problem solving, and decision-making,” according to Natalie Denburg, an assistant professor of neurology and neuroscience at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.
Denburg’s team found that impaired decision-makers were more vulnerable to deceptive advertising claims and tended to go for promises of short-term rewards at the expense of long-term benefits. “They also often assumed long-term benefits in situations where there are none,” she adds. “We see these characteristics as direct consequences of neurological dysfunction in systems that are critical for bringing emotion-related signals to bear on decision-making.”
Much is at stake; Laibson notes that $18.1 trillion of the $53.1 trillion in U.S. household net worth is held by the vulnerable population over age 65–a percentage that will rise as the baby boom generation ages in the years ahead.
“It turns out that our peak ability to make good choices in the world comes in the mid-50s, and after that there is a decline,” Laibson says. “So we have to think about that, and of course dementia makes that decline even more severe.”
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