Everyone knows the adage: "If something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is." Why, then, do some people fall for scams and older people especially prone to being duped?
An answer, it seems, is because a specific area of the brain has deteriorated or is damaged, according to researchers at the University of Iowa.
By examining patients with various forms of brain damage, the researchers report they've pinpointed the precise location in the human brain, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, that controls belief and doubt, and which explains why some of us are more gullible than others.
"This specific deficit may explain why highly intelligent patients can fall victim to seemingly obvious fraud schemes," the researchers wrote in the paper published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.
A study conducted for the National Institute of Justice in 2009 concluded that nearly 12% of Americans 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.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is an oval-shaped lobe in the front of the human head, right above the eyes.
During the study, a group of 39 carefully selected volunteers were shown advertisements mimicking ones flagged as misleading by the Federal Trade Commission to test how much they believed or doubted the ads.
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.
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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.
According to the paper's author Daniel Tranel, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex begins to deteriorate as people reach age 60 and older, although the onset and the pace of deterioration can vary.
"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," said Tranel, in a statement.
Due to the study's small sample size, researchers underline that further studies are warranted.
Would you have falled for any of these scams?