Why Senior Citizens May Be Overly Trusting

Out ability to judge the trustworthiness of faces diminishes with age, a new study shows

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, rumors flew that unscrupulous scam artists were knocking on doors of senior citizens, pretending to be representatives from Con-Ed electric company. Regardless of whether this rumor is true, older folks often have a reputation for innocence and, at worst, gullibility.

New research shows that, at least for some, this stereotype may be rooted in physiology. Our ability to judge the trustworthiness of faces diminishes with age, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports, as does activity in the brain region associated with that gut feeling that informs us about the trustworthiness of others based on their appearance.

As The Scientist reports, according to the Federal Trade Commission, up to 80 percent of scam victims are over the age of 65. To investigate this trend, psychologists showed photos of faces pre-rated for trustworthiness to a group of 119 older people, aged 55 to 84, and 34 young people, aged 20 to 42.

Both groups performed equally well at identifying “trustworthy” and “neutral” faces, but the older group performed less well at identifying “untrustworthy” faces. The older group missed cues such as direct gaze or a smile that awkwardly turns fully upward, which the young people easily picked out. Younger adults, they found, showed higher activity in the anterior insula, a brain region associated with “gut feeling” decisions, during these trials, whereas older people showed little or no activation in this brain area.

In other words, the researchers say, the older people’s brains are not registering the “uh-oh” feeling of a scam or of trouble. More research will be needed to see whether this brain region’s seeming off switch is the cause of effect of older people’s more rosy outlook on the rest of humanity.

More from Smithsonian.com:

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