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Why it's easier to scam older people

Posting in Science

A new study might explain why seniors are disproportionately vulnerable to fraud. Brain scans show that our ability to judge the trustworthiness of people's faces diminishes with age, Nature News reports.

A team led by Shelley Taylor from the University of California, Los Angeles, asked 24 younger adults (ages 20-42) and 119 older adults (55-84) to rate faces as being trustworthy, neutral, or untrustworthy.

These faces have been pre-rated using known cues of trustworthiness -- a direct gaze and a sincere smile that turns fully upwards towards the eyes. Signs of untrustworthiness include averted eyes, a smile that doesn't reach the eyes, a backward tilt to the head, and a smug, smirky mouth.

The participants all showed similar skills in rating trustworthy and neutral faces. But older individuals were less adept at identifying visual cues for untrustworthy faces.

Next, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe brain activity in the participants as they viewed the images.

Younger adults showed a strong response in a region of the brain called the anterior insula, which is known to control the 'gut feelings' that inform decision-making — especially when viewing untrustworthy faces. But the older adults displayed almost no such activation, suggesting they were getting diminished or no warning signals.

The anterior insula is involved with perceiving risk and reactions of disgust. In other words… “They are not getting the 'uh-oh!' signal that younger people get,” Taylor says.

Up to 80% of scam victims are over 65. Both the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Bureau of Investigation have found that older people are easy marks due in part to their tendency to accentuate the positive, ScienceNOW reports.

The work was published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

[Via Nature News, ScienceNOW]

Image by somegeekintn via Flickr

— By on December 5, 2012, 6:51 AM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure