Why are the elderly so prone to falling for scams?
Researchers at the University of Iowa say they have pinpointed the precise location in the human brain, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), that controls belief and doubt — and that explains why some people are more gullible than others.
“The current study provides the first direct evidence beyond anecdotal reports that damage to the vmPFC increases credulity,” the researchers say in a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.
“Indeed, this specific deficit may explain why highly intelligent vmPFC patients can fall victim to seemingly obvious fraud schemes.”
The elderly are often more vulnerable because the vmPFC tends to lose structural integrity and functionality as we age, the researchers noted.
“Vulnerability to misleading information, outright deception and fraud in older adults is the specific result of a deficit in the doubt process that is mediated by the vmPFC,” the researchers said.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is an oval-shaped lobe about the size of a softball lodged in the front of the human head, right above the eyes, that controls a range of emotions and behaviors from impulsivity to poor planning.
The research team drew from the Neurological Patient Registry, which was established in 1982 and has more than 500 members with various forms of damage to one or more regions in the brain. From that pool, the researchers chose 18 patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and 21 patients with damage outside the prefrontal cortex.
Those patients, along with people with no brain damage, were shown advertisements mimicking ones flagged as misleading by the Federal Trade Commission to test how much they believed or doubted the ads.
The deception in the ads was subtle, according to the researchers, who note that one ad for “Legacy Luggage” trumpeted the gear as “American Quality,” but turned on the consumer’s ability to distinguish whether the luggage was manufactured in the United States versus inspected in the country.
Each participant was asked to gauge how much he or she believed the deceptive ad and how likely he or she would be to buy the item if it were available.
The researchers found that the patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were roughly twice as likely to believe an ad, even when given disclaimer information pointing out it was misleading.
They also were more likely to buy the item, regardless of whether misleading information had been corrected.
“Behaviorally, they fail the test to the greatest extent,” said Natalie Denburg, Ph.D.,assistant professor in neurology who devised the ad tests. “They believe the ads the most, and they demonstrate the highest purchase intention. Taken together, it makes them the most vulnerable to being deceived.”
She added the sample size is small and further studies are needed.
Daniel Tranel, Ph.D., a neurology and psychology professor and corresponding author on the paper, said he hopes the researchers’ findings will enable doctors, caregivers, and relatives to be more understanding of decision making by the elderly — “and maybe protective,” he added.
“Instead of saying, ‘How would you do something silly and transparently stupid,’ people may have a better appreciation of the fact that older people have lost the biological mechanism that allows them to see the disadvantageous nature of their decisions,” he said.
Source: The University of Iowa