Study: Elderly Brains Have Trouble Recognizing Untrustworthy Faces

Why, with age, people appear to lose the gut instinct that protects us from scams and shady deals

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Thomas Leuthard/Flickr

PROBLEM: There's a con going around known as the "Grandma scam," where people impersonating elderly adults' grandchildren convince them they're in trouble and beg them to send money. And this is only the latest iteration of older Americans being scammed out of their savings. In 2010 adults over the age of 60 lost "at least $2.9 billion in 2010 to financial exploitation, ranging from home repair scams to complex financial swindles." Sure, anyone can be susceptible to irrational thinking when confronted with the interplay of middle-of-the-night urgency and concern for their family -- but why is it that older people seem so often to be the victims of this sort of thing?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers at UCLA, funded by the National Institute on Aging (I looked into it -- they're legit) pitted older adults against a younger generation to test how savvy they were to potential con artists. They showed 30 photographs of faces, "selected to represent the full range of trustworthiness," to 119 older adults, with a mean age of 68, and 24 younger adults, with a mean age of 23. The participants were asked to rate the faces on how trustworthy and approachable they appeared to be. (According to the researchers, untrustworthy faces tend to have insincere smiles, broken eye contact, or just exude a feeling of something being "off.") Then, in a related study, they showed the pictures of faces to 23 older adults and 21 younger adults (they were slightly older, with a mean age of 33) -- this time while conducting fMRI scans of the participants' brains. 

RESULTS: Everyone in the first study had strong and similar reactions to the trustworthy and neutral faces. But the older adults were more trusting of the untrustworthy faces than were their younger counterparts. When looked at through the fMRI data, older adults had very little activity in their anterior insula -- the area of the brain associated with the "gut feeling" that something is wrong -- which was much more active for younger adults, especially when the face was sinister.

CONCLUSION: The behavioral and neurological evidence, taken together, suggests that "a diminished 'gut' response to cues of untrustworthiness may partially underlie older adults' vulnerability to fraud."

IMPLICATIONS: Older adults have in general been shown to be less sensitive to negative cues, write the authors. This "positivity bias," which leads them to report higher levels of happiness and satisfaction with life, can be considered a good thing -- until people try to take advantage of that.

"I would tell older adults to just hang up on solicitors," said lead author Shelley Taylor. "Don't talk to salesmen pushing investments -- just say no. Do not go to the free lunch seminars where there are investment pitches. Stay away from these people. I'm not saying that all of these are fraudulent, but the best thing that you can do if your brain isn't helping you to make these discriminations is not to have to make them."

So far as internet scams go, those of the more cynical younger generation might want to show their elders how to use Snopes, or install a fact-checking filter.

The full study, "Neural and behavioral bases of age differences in perceptions of trust" was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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