The fact that older adults are particularly vulnerable to fraud is quite well-known, but the reason for this susceptibility has traditionally been attributed to personality—older people expect to see the good in others because they were raised in a more trusting society—or a desire for social interaction, even if that interaction consists solely of a few minutes of conversation. New research from a team at UCLA, however, suggests that functional changes in the brain may actually be at fault. As part of our larger community education initiative, Home Care Assistance would like to share the findings of this research with you.
In the first part of the study, researchers showed photos of faces considered trustworthy, neutral, or untrustworthy to a group of 119 older adults (ages 55 to 84) and 24 younger adults. Trustworthy and neutral faces resulted in similar responses between the groups. However, when viewing the “untrustworthy” (averted eyes, smirked mouth, insincere smile) faces, the older adults rated them as significantly more trustworthy than their younger counterparts. The second part of the study utilized fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to chart activity in various brain regions during this trustworthiness discrimination. Using a sample of 44 individuals (23 older adults aged 55 to 80 and 21 younger adults), researchers found that younger subjects showed significantly more activity in the brain region called the anterior insula when viewing untrustworthy faces and making ratings of the faces than older subjects.
Studies suggest that the anterior insula plays a role in emotion processing, particularly disgust, attention and in this case, the interpretation of “gut feelings”. This study suggests that the anterior insula becomes less responsive as we age, either due to deterioration of brain tissue in this region or because the neurons in this region become faulty in signaling. Without this early warning-signal, older adults are not alerted to focus on the cues that suggest untrustworthiness.
Although the focus here was on visual cues of honesty, it is possible that similar principles apply in the context of language. It would be interesting to repeat the experimental paradigms using vocal recordings of telemarketers. In any case, the best way to protect yourself from falling victim to a scam is to hang up on telemarketers and be wary of any deal that seems too good to be true.