Thinking intuitively about risks reduces online risk-taking behaviors

Written by Claire White
Edited by Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau

Even though I am very careful about who I share my personal email address with I still receive scam emails on a daily basis. Apparently I am due a refund from the Inland Revenue, have a huge lottery win waiting for me to collect, and can receive a $1 million reward for helping a chap in Nigeria to claim his inheritance. Affecting millions of people across the globe, online fraud costs the global economy more than $100 billion.

These online scams target adults of all ages but older adults are disproportionately affected. According to the National Council on Aging, “financial scams targeting seniors have become so prevalent that they’re now considered the crime of the 21st century”. This age group also often suffers more as a consequence because they have no means to replace money they have lost through scams. This is one reason why the U.K. government’s Digital Inclusion Strategy aims to educate and improve the U.K. adult population’s online engagement. There are many potential benefits to this government initiative, not least combating social isolation and loneliness. However, armed with fewer digital skills and less experience, older adults may be at an increased risk of victimization. Through our research, we were able to highlight reasoning and decision-making strategies concerning risky online behavior that may be of particular benefit to adults of all ages, and in particular to older adults.

In our previous research we investigated adolescents’ and young adult’s online risk-taking, specifically focusing on the disclosure of personal information and friending strangers. We also wanted to better understand risk-taking behavior using Fuzzy Trace Theory (FTT). This dual-process theory of decision making asserts that we encode information using two distinct modes: verbatim and gist. Verbatim representation are precise quantitative accounts. Gist representations are derived from the meaning of events in light of an individual’s values and beliefs which create intuitive, qualitative representations. FTT suggests that individuals can utilize both verbatim and gist reasoning routes to decide whether to engage in a risky activity. Individuals who prefer to draw upon gist representations have been shown to take less risks. In contrast, engaging in systematic analysis of cost–benefit trade-offs (verbatim reasoning) can (paradoxically) result in higher rates of risk-taking, particularly in situations where the perceived likelihood of a risky event occurring is low. A developmental shift in preference for gist reasoning occurs around young adulthood. When deciding whether to engage in a risky activity,  adults prefer to draw upon a hierarchy of gist representations and start any decision making process at the most basic categorical level: Is the action risky or not? If consequential outcomes exist, generally the risk is avoided.

Our current study was designed to extend our investigations of online risk taking across adulthood and to examine whether gist reasoning continued to be a protective factor across the adult lifespan. We administered online questionnaires to 326 adults (18–79 years), asking them to complete measures about sensation seeking and questions designed to assess their gist and verbatim reasoning about online risky activities. In addition, participants told us about their online behavior, including what they use the internet for and how long they spend online each week. Finally, we asked how many times they had disclosed personal information online over the past year, how many strangers they had ‘friended’, and whether they intended to repeat this behavior in future.

Our findings revealed that 61% of adults had disclosed personal information and 39% had friended strangers. Slightly fewer participants over 60 years old had engaged in these activities. However, the older adults reported more personal information disclosures and strangers friended than the under 60’s. Past risk-taking, time spent online, sensation seeking, and future risk intentions reduced with age. However, as age increased so did gist reasoning about online risk. Our results showed that age, time spent online, and past risk-taking are important factors in predicting future risky online behavior. In addition, increased gist reasoning predicted lower future risk intentions, while increased verbatim reasoning predicted higher future risk intentions.

The self-reported nature of our data mean that we cannot be sure that they reflect individual’s actual online behavior, and additionally we only investigated the online environment and cannot say yet whether our findings are applicable to other domains. Like any early investigations into a subject, more research is needed. Nevertheless, these findings highlight some important new information about adult’s online judgement and decision-making.

With millions of adults falling victim to online fraud, gaining better understanding of the factors involved in the likelihood of taking online risks is crucial, as it can help develop measures to protect adults of all ages, and older adults in particular. Our study shows that individuals who engaged in quantitative, verbatim reasoning about online risks were more likely to intend to take risks online in the future. In contrast, those who drew upon intuitive, gist representations of online risk were less likely to intend to engage in risky online behavior. Gist reasoning, furthermore, appeared to increase well into adulthood. Our work suggests that important initiatives to increase older adults online activities, such as the ones advocated by the U.K. government, could draw on our research to help ensure adults are safely enjoying the benefits of online surfing. Appropriate education and training aimed to help older adults gaining a gist understanding of online risks could act as a protective factor against online risk taking.

Further reading: White, C. M., Gummerum, M., Wood, S., & Hanoch, Y. (2017). Internet Safety and the Silver Surfer: The Relationship Between Gist Reasoning and Adults’ Risky Online Behavior: Adults’ Online Risk-Taking. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.