Opening our minds to skepticism

I am rerunning a few of my earlier posts over the next few weeks. This one, about critical thinking skills, was from February, 2014. I thought it was especially relevant during the current U.S. election cycle.

All too often, we read stories about people who are duped by scammers. Sadly, the victim is often elderly and, tragically, large sums of money – money that they can’t afford to lose – are frequently involved.

As my late father’s physical and mental health started to decline, I worried about him falling for the various come-ons he received in the mail and on the phone. He had a good, analytical mind when he was younger, but I could tell that his aging brain was becoming less and less able to discern fact from fiction. Fortunately, I was able to protect his bank accounts and credit card before anything happened so he and his finances were safe.

Scammers continue to devise more sophisticated and devious ways to separate people from their money, but there are still plenty of victims responding to notices of large lottery wins, promised riches from Nigerian princes, and a variety of phony phishing emails. My innate skepticism will help protect me from falling for these scams now, but I worry that when I am much older, will I still be able to avoid being taken advantage of?

The same critical thinking skills that make me disregard offers that are “too good to be true” lead me to question much of what I read on the Internet and in social media. I can always count on a handful of “friends” posting items on Facebook or forwarding me emails (along with protestations of outrage) with a story sent to them by some equally outraged person. Most don’t pass my “smell test” and, after a quick search on various fact-checking sites, the stories turn out to be just that, stories.

I don’t think these people are stupid or especially gullible but when they read something that fits very neatly into their political or ideological mindset, they tend not to question its authenticity. This is how hate, lies, and rumors are spread; one unquestioned falsehood at a time.

We live in a society of people who self-select their news. If one source’s slant doesn’t lean in the right direction, simply choose another that does. We also tend to socialize, and even live in communities, with like-minded people. That way we don’t have to question our beliefs or, god forbid, alter them in any way. I guess this makes us feel  comfortable in our convictions, but does it make us better citizens? Does listening to only one side of a story before deciding on its merits support our intellectual integrity? I think most would agree that it does not (although we still do it because, really, it’s others who need to open their minds, not us… right?).

Non-critical thinking makes us more vulnerable to scammers. If we trust a source so completely that we never question its accuracy, why would we question the authenticity of an “exclusive offer” from the same source (or one of its advertisers)? Even better if the offer is also couched in language that supports our biases. If we are distrustful of something or someone, are we not more likely to respond to something that reinforces our  suspicion?

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”  - Mark Twain
“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” – Mark Twain

Less incendiary, but maybe in some ways worse, are the “innocent” but untrue items that are re-posted virally. If the poster had done some quick research or applied simple logic, they would have realized that the story doesn’t make any sense. In this category are those emails/posts that promise riches/good luck if you continue the chain (and usually include dire warnings if you don’t), and urban legends like entering your ATM PIN backwards will summon help. Although new myths are being created all the time, many have been around for years and are repackaged and posted over and over again.

When we get in the habit of using magical thinking in place of critical thinking, we make ourselves more vulnerable to hoaxes and fraud. Best case, we just irritate our friends and end up looking stupid, but worst case, we open ourselves up to scammers and thieves.

Recent studies have shown that changes in the brain as we age make the elderly more trusting. The negative “gut feelings” a younger person might experience aren’t felt as strongly by an older person. For this reason, we must be alert when caring for an older adult to protect them from unscrupulous individuals and businesses.

Fortunately, there are things we can do as we age so we aren’t as likely to become victims. We can actually practice our critical thinking skills, learn to be more analytical, and train our brains to question when something just doesn’t ring true.

The enemy of scammers and hoaxers is common sense, questioning, and research.

Be their barricade, not their bridge.

Author: Janis @

My blog is about travel, relationships, photography, and whatever else pops into my head (even, sometimes, issues surrounding retirement and aging).

28 thoughts on “Opening our minds to skepticism”

  1. Excellent repost. By the way, Mark Twain said “common sense is not all that common.” The other sad part about this is scammers are greater in number as there is no moral compass. If the victim is in another country or several states away, it is almost like a customer service rep duping someone out of their money. It could be simply aggressive marketing from an otherwise reputable company or it could be a scam. I once asked one of the fraudsters who used the Microsoft calling scheme (we have detected your computer is in peril), do you realize you are committing a crime? Click.

    1. It’s hard to imagine how someone could commit fraud – especially on the vulnerable – and look themselves in the mirror. Some people are so willing to believe what should sound too good to be true, they ignore their internal radar.

      1. Agreed, but the scammers sound believable like the IRS one. Or, the grandchild has been in an accident one.

  2. A very good post Janis. I’m always disturbed when I hear of people being scammed. It feels like a form of violation because there was a sense of trust and hope involved.

  3. Always good advice and a good idea to repost for those who have not seen it before. I have noticed more scammers calling me, and I report each one to our state Attorney General. In Minnesota we are lucky to have an active AG who pursues scammers and takes them to court!


    1. I’m not sure what our state does, but I’ll look into it. I’m glad that your state takes it seriously. I hardly ever answer my phone unless I recognize the number (and sometimes not even then 😏 ) so I guess I miss most of those calls.

  4. Perfect! I had a short paragraph on this topic for Sunday but opted not to use it. I am getting increasingly annoyed by people who buy into stories that fit their beliefs without checking the facts. Since this is an election year, it’s worse than ever. This week someone gave me a “solution” to a groundhog problem. I’m not a doctor but common sense would tell you it won’t work. My husband says that common sense isn’t so common. I also remember when my mother was aging. During her last year she would be naïve to things. My mother was a tough woman who didn’t fall for stories her entire life so it was really scary.

    1. It really is scary to see someone who had a good sense of skepticism become vulnerable to come-ones and scams. I hope my husband and I can remain vigilant, but who knows. Let me know if you hear of a solution to gophers! 😄

  5. Love your last sentence. And I think you’re right, that there’s a critical thinking connection with this upcoming election. If we haven’t learned from the Brexit vote, maybe a quick critical thinking lesson will help!

    1. I was just saying to my husband this morning that I wasn’t sure if I was more worried about the outcome of the election or what that outcome might indicate about our country’s critical thinking skills. Both would be frightening.

  6. I always respond to emails I receive from friends who pass along completely erroneous information. I also have a friend who feels she needs to answer every phone call she receives, even when the caller ID indicates a likely scam. These are the people who get scammed. Too sad.

    1. I’ve lost a few Facebook “friends” by pointing out that what they posted isn’t true. I try to be respectful, but I guess no one likes to be proven wrong.

      Scammers can be quite clever and know just what to say to convince people. Add to that a tendency to be more trusting as we get older, and it’s easy to understand why seniors are targeted. I’d like to think I’ll keep my good sense as I get older, but there are no guarantees.

  7. Great article. I totally know what you mean about friends forwarding you stuff that doesn’t pass the sniff test. I get that a lot and immediately go to Snopes for verification. Only once in 5 years has one of these items been true.

    And in trying to keep an open mind and seeing things from other’s perspectives, I’ve started to read Newspapers that are from the ‘other side’. It has been a very interesting adventure

    1. It’s hard to read things from another perspective if you don’t believe the initial premise (“climate change is a farce,” “all are bad”, etc.) but I commend you for trying. I’m always looking for a source that is truly impartial and presents well-researched and well-documented information now days. But, that’s in the U.S.; I wonder if it’s that bad everywhere?

  8. You managed to put skepticism in a very practical and positive light, as it should be. I hold my own skepticism in high regard, but sometimes feel that it comes off as being negative. It’s nice to read somebody’s thoughts on the positives of keeping an open mind and questioning people’s motives. Sadly, there is no shortage of hucksters in this world who would have no problem sleeping at night after taking everything from an elderly person because tragically, it happens every day. I agree with you about the political aspect too, too many people are swept into political ideologies without really questioning them. Thanks for posting this!

    1. Thank you for your comment! For some reason, you ended up in my spam folder. I hope that as I grow older, my natural skepticism will help me avoid getting taken advantage of. But, as I cared for my (also naturally skeptical) father as he declined physically and mentally, he became much more trusting. Fortunately, my brothers and I had his best interests at heart and took care of his affairs with love and attention, but we could have easily done otherwise. The thought that anyone could take advantage of anyone who is vulnerable makes me so angry. I know that being skeptical can appear as negative, but I’d rather continue to question than to be taken advantage of.

  9. Thank you so much for reposting. Several correspondents ask ” how can scammers live with themselves.” It is in fact how they live. Others wonder if it’s “only in the USA”. From a Tasmanian perspective, it’s everywhere, as is the internet, but America has made it great again! I loved your last sentence, and tetter on the verge of reblogging, thankyou so much for your thoughtful post.

      1. I realised this was before 2016 election, so prescient. Commentary and speculation about living in a reality show has sadly come to pass. We wish y’all luck as November 2020, comes round!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: