Brain Study Shows Why Older People Get Scammed: They See the World In a More Positive Light

New research, published Tuesday, suggests older people habitually see the world in a more positive light due to changes in their brain.

That sounds like a good thing.

But sometimes, it can be for the worse. The study, appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, had two different age groups rate untrustworthy or trustworthy faces on a 1 – 3 scale, based on how trustworthy the particpants thought they were. Researchers also measured the brain’s response. Those 55 – 84 years old had a fundamentally different reaction to the faces than those aged 20 – 42. It could explain a few things, like susceptibility to scams.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, up to 80% of scam victims are over 65. The latest research here suggests that people in this older demographic don’t have the built in scam-detector that they did when they were younger.

A region of the brain, the anterior insula, helps people monitor their own moods and reactions and is responsible for our “gut reactions.” In the study, when the younger group was presented with “trustworthy” faces, the insula activated and when they were presented with the “untrustworthy” faces (in which subjects have averted eyes, smug smiles, etc.), the insula really fired up. That was not the case for the older group, which showed little or no activation in that area of the brain. In other words, there was a disconnect between what they were seeing and how they “should” have been feeling about it.

The study, "Neural and behavioral bases of age differences in perceptions of trust," was funded by the National Institute on Aging.

More proof positive that the brain never stops changing, and us with it. Good news? Bad news? It depends on how you see it.

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Michael McCutcheon

Michael was formerly special projects editor at Mic. Prior to that, he worked at the Open Society Foundations on electoral reform. A native Seattleite, he's still mad about the SuperSonics.

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