Professor Stacey Wood was recently named the Molly Mason Jones Chair in Psychology, which was designed to support the teaching and research activities of a senior member of the psychology faculty. Wood has taught at Scripps since 1998 and is a dynamic researcher and clinician who focuses on information processing and decision-making among the elderly. As the number of older adults in the U.S. continues to grow, research and advocacy around their health and wellbeing has become critical. The Scripps Office of Marketing and Communications sat down with Professor Wood to talk teaching, avoiding scams, and staying fit.
Scripps College: The Administration on Aging forecasts a significant growth of the population of older adults, with the media referring to the swelling of the aging population as a “silver tsunami.” How does your research and teaching fit into this projected demographic shift?
Stacey Wood: I have had a longstanding passion for working with older adults both as a researcher and a clinician—it is very rewarding work.
My research has examined how decision-making changes as we age, incorporating cognitive changes as well as motivational shifts that occur across the lifespan. I have been especially interested in applying my research to real-life decisions that seniors face, such as financial decisions, health-related decision-making, and susceptibility to scams.
I feel that one of my roles at Scripps is at the very least to expose students to the possibility of a career that may be related to working with seniors. The shift in demographics makes this goal even more imperative.
SC: Given this demographic shift, you have recently begun a new line of research designed to better understand the tactics used in mass marketing scams (MMS). Can you tell us about these scams and why what makes them so insidious?
SW: MMS refer to any type of fraud scheme that uses mass communication techniques like robocalls, emails, or direct mail. An example of a MMS would be an advance fee type scam like a sweepstakes scam, when consumers are told that they have already won a large prize, but only need to send a small fee for taxes, shipping, processing, or activation. The consumer never gets the prize, but then has been identified as an attractive target for future scams. I am also seeing a huge increase in these types of scams, particularly by way of robocalls. This observation has been echoed in a recent report by the Better Business Bureau on MMS that estimated consumer losses of over 100 million in 2017 alone. The psychological tactics used by the perpetrators are actually quite complex, but consumers overestimate their ability to identify scams and to avoid them.
SC: This preying on the vulnerability of unwitting consumers leads me to another topic of your research: elder abuse. What is elder abuse, and what do you think we, as a society, can do to mitigate instances of elder abuse?
SW: Elder abuse refers to a range of acts against older adults (over 65) which can include physical abuse, neglect, emotional or psychological abuse, sexual abuse, or financial abuse. Societal solution will depend on the type of abuse that is occurring.
For example, for physical abuse and neglect, elder abuse is typically perpetrated behind closed doors in homes, like other types of domestic violence. However, because of disability and dependency, some seniors can no longer advocate for themselves or leave abusive situations. Educating physicians and nurses about the signs of elder abuse and reporting requirements would be helpful.
In terms of financial abuse, educating the banks and individuals in the financial industry regarding the signs of financial abuse could improve detection and intervention.
SC: Your expertise on the topic of elder abuse has led you to become a recognized expert witness in the areas of neuropsychology and geropsychology (a field of psychology that focuses on older adults). Can you tell us some more about this?
SW: In my other life, I have worked as a member of a forensic elder abuse multidisciplinary team (MDT) in Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties. As a consulting neuropsychologist and geropsychologist, I go out on calls in the field, complete assessments, interview victims and witnesses, draft reports, and testify in court on cases typically related to capacity, undue influence, conservatorship issues, and fraud. I have also worked quite a bit with elderly criminal defendants, evaluating their decision-making and helping the courts better understand issues related to aging. I have also had the opportunity to do trainings for the State of California on these issues.
SC: What is your favorite course to teach at Scripps, and why?
SW: Probably Clinical Neuropsychology at the moment. I am using Oliver Sacks for inspiration, taking a case study approach to help students apply what they are learning in class to clinical data. This approach also allows me to integrate my clinical practice with my teaching.
SC: What is something interesting about you that not many people know?
SW: I love CrossFit!