Federal Trade Commission: Up to 80 percent of scam victims are over 65. Despite long experience with the ways of the world, older people are especially vulnerable to fraud.
Crooks find older people more susceptive from fraud. Their age acts as if a built-in detector for the scammers. The reason may lie in the brain region called the anterior insula. The anterior insula is less active in older people as a result making them less cautious than younger people. According to social neuroscientist Shelley Taylor of the University of California, Los Angeles, research backs up the idea that older people can put a positive spin on things — emotionally charged pictures, for example, and playing virtual games in which they risk the loss of money. “Older people are good at regulating their emotions, seeing things in a positive light, and not overreacting to everyday problems,” she says. But this trait may make them less wary. Both FTC and the Federal Bureau of Investigation agreed on their findings that older people are easy targets due in part to their tendency to put emphasis on the positive, which also supports Taylor’s findings.
Taylor and colleagues made an experiment to find out if older people really are less able to spot a shyster. Signs of untrustworthiness include averted eyes; an insincere smile that doesn’t reach the eyes; a smug, smirky mouth; and a backward tilt to the head. The participants were asked to rate each face on a scale from -3 (very untrustworthy) to 3 (very trustworthy). They showed photos of faces considered trustworthy, neutral, or untrustworthy to a group of 119 older adults (ages 55 to 84) and 24 younger adults (ages 20 to 42).
The study can be considered to be successful because, the “untrustworthy” faces were perceived as significantly more trustworthy by the older subjects as by the younger ones, as expected from the older people. To further attest to the theory, the researchers then performed the same test on a different set of volunteers, this time imaging their brains during the process, to look for differences in brain activity between the age groups. In the younger subjects, when asked to judge whether the faces were trustworthy, the anterior insula became active; the activity increased at the sight of an untrustworthy face. The older people, however, showed little or no activation.
The insula’s job is to collect information not about others but about one’s own body — sensing feelings, including “gut instincts” — and present that information to the rest of the brain. “It’s a warning bell that doesn’t seem to work as well in older people.” By habitually seeing the world in a positive light, older people may be overriding this warning signal, says Taylor. “It looks like the brain is conspiring with what older people do naturally.” But the theory has its flaws since the study is limited to faces. Whether the insula activates in response to non-facial cues, such as telephone scams (a particular problem for older people), remains unclear, says Taylor.