Why, with age, people appear to lose the gut instinct that protects us from scams and shady deals
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?
- Women Who Quit Smoking by Age 40 Avoid 90% of Death Risk
- Being a 'Healthy' Degree of Neurotic Lowers Risk of Chronic Disease
- Countries That Use More High Fructose Corn Syrup Have More Diabetes
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.