It's no secret that senior citizens are a con artist's favorite target. They seem more trusting and more likely to fall for a scammer's pitch.
But why, exactly? Conventional wisdom holds that older people are more trusting and, because they are from a generation that came of age at a time when people were more honest, they don't question a scammer's “too good to be true” promises.
But maybe there's something more at work here. Researchers at the University of Iowa believe it all has to do with deteriorating brain function, a product of advancing years.
They say they’ve pinpointed the precise location in the human brain, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), that controls belief and doubt, and that is what explains why some of us are more gullible than others.
“The current study provides the first direct evidence beyond anecdotal reports that damage to the vmPFC increases credulity. Indeed, this specific deficit may explain why highly intelligent vmPFC patients can fall victim to seemingly obvious fraud schemes,” the researchers wrote in the paper published in a special issue of the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.
Statistics tend to support their conclusions. A study conducted for the National Institute of Justice in 2009 concluded that nearly 12 percent of people 60 and older had been exploited financially by a family member or a stranger. And a report last year by insurer MetLife Inc. estimated the annual loss by victims of elder financial abuse at $2.9 billion.
In 2006, ConsumerAffairs reported the case of an elderly Kansas man who lost $300,000 to the Canadian lottery scam over a four-year period. In an interview, his daughter said repeated intervention by family members and the police did little good, that her father could not conceive that someone would lie to him.
The Iowa authors say their research can explain why the elderly, like the subject of our story, are vulnerable.
“In our theory, the more effortful process of disbelief to items initially believed is mediated by the vmPFC, which, in old age, tends to disproportionately lose structural integrity and associated functionality,” they wrote. “Thus, we suggest that 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 ventromedial prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain the size of a softball lodged in the front of the human head, right above the eyes. It’s part of a larger area known to scientists since the extraordinary case of Phineas Gage that controls a range of emotions and behaviors, from impulsivity to poor planning.
But brain scientists have struggled to identify which regions of the prefrontal cortex govern specific emotions and behaviors, including the cognitive seesaw between belief and doubt.
Tests with a deceptive ad
In a study 500 seniors with various forms of documented brain damage were shown advertisements mimicking ones flagged as misleading by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to test how much they believed or doubted the ads. The deception in the ads was subtle; for example, an ad for “Legacy Luggage” that trumpets the gear as “American Quality” 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 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 a given ad, even when given disclaimer information pointing out it was misleading. And, they were more likely to buy the item, regardless of whether misleading information had been corrected.
“Behaviorally, they fail the test to the greatest extent,” says Natalie Denburg, 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."
Process begins at age 60
The vulnerability begins as you get older. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex begins to deteriorate as people reach age 60 and older, although the onset and the pace of deterioration varies, according to Daniel Tranel, neurology and psychology professor at Iowa and corresponding author on the paper. He thinks the finding will enable doctors, caregivers, and relatives to be more understanding of decision making by the elderly.
“And maybe protective,” Tranel said. “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.”