Scientists Say Elderly Get Scammed More Because Their Gullibility Detectors Wear Down With Age

The elderly have long been desirable prey for scammers — but why? Is it because they’re perceived as lonely or their access to disposable income? A group of scientists have introduced a new theory in a study of older people that says it’s just because our gullibility detectors simply get worn down as we age.

They’re not called gullibility detectors, per se, but the study did research a certain part of our brain that controls belief and doubt, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, notes Business Insider. This spot is right above our eyes and deteriorates as we grow older. The more worn down it is, the less able we are to detect if something is a scam, even if it’s staring us right in our ventromedial prefrontal cortexes.

Researchers at the University of Iowa studied a group of patients with damage to that area, others with damage outside of it and then patients with no damage. Subjects were shown ads that were similar to ones the Federal Trade Commission deemed misleading, to see whether they’d believe what they were being sold.

Participants were asked how much they believed the deceptive ad, and whether or not they’d go for it if they could. Those with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were about twice as likely to believe the ads, even if there was disclaimer information that made it pretty clear that it was misleading. They were also more likely to buy the item.

The researchers wrote:

“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. 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.”

One of the authors of the study made a good point — knowing this, perhaps we’ll be less likely to be so harsh on elderly people when they do fall for scams.

“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.”

In other words, don’t be such a brat to your grandmother or father when they’re showing off the new limited-edition set of collectible troll dolls they just bought that are a “great investment.” You might be there one day, too.

Scientists Discovered Why It’s So Easy To Scam Old People [Business Insider]

Why Are Elderly Duped? Area in Brain Where Doubt Arises Changes With Age [Science Daily]

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  1. AcctbyDay says:

    This isn’t a scary thing to read at all. Good luck to all of us growing old and aging.

    • redskull says:

      Well, remember that whole Mayan thing’s coming up at the end of the year, so we shouldn’t have to worry about it.

  2. 333 (only half evil) says:

    I always thought it was because they grew up in more trusting times.

    • Gehasst says:

      +1

    • lavoet2 says:

      I thought so, too.

    • TrustAvidity says:

      Agreed.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      I hear that alot. I’d love to see research on if that was really the case.

      I guess we’ll know better as future generations age.

      My parents grew up around cars, which means they grew up with car dealerships. Therefore, I refuse to believe my parents’ generation could be categorized as living in “more trusting times.”

  3. Wonko the Sane says:

    I wonder to what extend the “gullibility detector” wear is due to aging and how much is due to a lack of companionship which could affect individuals of all ages. I am no psychologist, but it seems to me the more lonely we become the more trusting we are with those willing to spend time with us because skepticism may cost us their companionship.

    In other news, I am willing to listen to any investment proposals you may have. I’ll even make us some tea and biscuits. Please don’t leave…

  4. Lethe says:

    I wonder if this could explain why most people become much more inflexible in their religious beliefs as they get older. Please keep in mind I’m not trying to bash anyone/anything, I’ve just noticed that the more elderly people in the community I grew up in were always much more likely to ignore any discrepancies in what they believed.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      Sorry to be bluntly honest, but I think you’ve created a false, biased belief.

      The ability to ignore discrepencies in something like religion, or to invent justifications for said discrepencies, is not at all based on age. In fact, this is a specific skill, which begins to be developed incredibly early in childhood.

  5. GitEmSteveDaveHatesChange says:

    Actually, this study was false. They just released the press release to see if they could scam reporters into believing it.

    New finding: reporters get scammed more because their gullibility detectors wear down with impending story deadlines.

  6. Sorta Kinda Lucky Soul says:

    I think it’s just a result of them becoming less sure of themselves as they age. When you’re younger you feel like you understand your environment (aka technology, new gadgets, etc). As you age some get out of touch and with that their self assurance falters. I think that’s when they stop calling BS on stuff that sounds iffy, because they just aren’t certain anymore.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      So you disagree with the results of this study?

      • Sorta Kinda Lucky Soul says:

        I think the psychological aspect plays into it more than the physiological. If you’re sure you know your issues you’ll fight when someone tries to sell you a line of bull; if you’re unsure you tend to give in. That has nothing to do with chemical imbalances, but has a lot to do with feeling out of place and unsure of yourself.

        • Kaniac says:

          The ventromedial prefrontal cortex damage described in the article was structural, not chemical.

          *pushes glasses further up nose*

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      Maybe some of that, but also their unfamiliarity with how times change. I think it was a lot easier to handle advancements in automobiles, air flight, space flight, etc. when the innovations were more about tangible things. When you go into gigabytes, mp3s, and other things that you can’t touch or feel, I imagine that can be very daunting for the elderly. Some of them know can use a telephone in their home, but as soon as you introduce them to a cell phone, they go blank, even though the concept is more or less the same.

      • Not Given says:

        I had to tell my mother that she didn’t have to go back to her home page on her browser before she closed it. She thought it was out on the internet somewhere when she was on a page.

      • iesika says:

        I don’t think this stereotype has been accurate for kind of a while. People who are in their seventies mostly used computers extensively in their working life. Just a quick mental survey of my older relatives gives me this – 73 year old iphone addicted aunt, 70 year old semi-retired farmer uncle who supports his family margin trading online (his tractors are all equiped with GPS, so that he can monitor and coordinate what’s going on from his tablet), and a 65 year old aunt who’s addicted to facebook and likes to have her girlfriends over to drink wine and play xbox on friday nights.

        I had an uncle who would be 74 if he were still alive. He’d worked with computers for about 45 years when he finally retired.

        • Not Given says:

          I have an uncle that had to start working with computers when his company got them. After he retired he refused to ever touch one again.

        • missminimonster says:

          It isn’t totally accurate but I’ve noticed that it’s usually one of two extremes–they either have a lot of computer skills or none at all (I work at an agency that helps older people with various things, one of them being computer skills).

          • pecan 3.14159265 says:

            I used to work with a library to help update their catalog of donated books, and they were flustered with how much they weren’t getting done because they depending on volunteers, most of whom were older and were extremely apprehensive to use a computer.

  7. AtlantaCPA says:

    I wonder if this could be reason (for good or ill) to take away control of finances from some people. Basically if you think your grandma has been making odd decisions you could have her ventromedial prefrontal cortexes tested and if they come back as damaged, then she does not get to sign the checks anymore? Obviously could be ripe for abuse, but could also save some people’s retirement money. It’s such a sticky topic, but to have a definite test involved could help clarify it.

    • Kaniac says:

      Except the test wouldn’t be that “definite”. That’s a pet-peeve of mine when it comes to neuroscience – people think brain scans give clear cut answers, but in reality they rarely do. Also, what if there *wasn’t* vmPFC damage (because the problem was actually in another part of the brain – the amygdala, say. Or didn’t show up on your fMRI because it’s a chemical problem rather a than structural one? Or too subtle to be picked up?)

      Then what do you decide? To let grandma continue to make terrible decisions and get scammed because the one brain area you happened to check looked OK? I think I’d be more comfortable with a system of deciding where grandma had to take a memory test and/or a math test and/or a reasoning test.

      • AtlantaCPA says:

        I like that idea. I just see a reasoning test getting more pushback from the “freedom” crowd than a scientific scan. You are right though, sounds like the scan is not ready to give definite answers yet.

  8. EP2012 says:

    Personally, I think this has more to do with the elderly being abandoned by family and society, and getting any form of attention (even from a scammer) lifts their spirits a bit.

    Sad but true – I bet these scams don’t work in countries where the elderly are treated like gods.

    • dolemite says:

      My grandfather was actively being scammed by several scams before he died. His mailbox was half full every day from organizations asking him to donate to “X” (most were bogus). In the end, he’d given thousands of dollars to a fake lottery scheme. The people said they needed money to get the prizes to him, then they needed money for this and that. This was not an instance of family abandoning someone though. The entire family pointed out it was a scam (along with many of the other scams he was a part of). He thought they were just trying to get his money (meaning his family), so he ignored them and actually became angry with many of them. He was of sound mind though, and actually could drive himself places, but he chose to believe the scam artists over his family.

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      I think there are just other kinds of scams.

    • GitEmSteveDaveHatesChange says:

      “Personally, I think this has more to do with the elderly being abandoned by family and society, and getting any form of attention (even from a scammer) lifts their spirits a bit. ”

      You obvs don’t have a family member that calls you up when they have any problem with their computer, such as not being able to Google Google through Google. Or calling you because a website is down, so their computer must be broken.

  9. lovemypets00 - You'll need to forgive me, my social filter has cracked. says:

    This is a good article. For those of us whose parents are getting up there in age (mine are in their late 70′s), we need to keep an eye on them so they don’t fall prey to scammers.

    I visit my parents several times per week, sometimes just to pop in and say Hi since they live a few miles away. I try to keep an eye out for extra boxes sitting around, which would show more mail ordering, or piles of junk mail from charities asking for money, things like that. I try not to be too obvious. And I ask my parents if they need help with anything.

    The other thing we need to realize is criminals know this stuff too, and they’re purposely targeting a group of people who may not be able to discern between a legitimate offer and a scam. What scum.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      The worst part, after the scammers targeting them, is that our parents/grandparents oftentimes feel shame in asking for their children’s help. So instead of actively seeking out advice from those of us with properly working ventromedial prefrontal cortexes, they follow their best judgement, which often turns out to be incorrect in these situations.

      • Not Given says:

        The one time my mom got scammed she went around and told everyone she knew so they wouldn’t fall for the same one.

  10. Sarek says:

    I believe everything I read on the internet. Now get off my lawn!

  11. Jane_Gage says:

    I would have thought everyone knew this, although the mechanism behind it is interesting. It would also be interesting to determine if doing crosswords and other suggestions to ward off mild cognitive decline would affect this area specifically.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      Mind puzzles have shown to improve reason and reduce alzheimer’s and the like. Would be good to know how I can keep my gullability down as I age, though.

    • Not Given says:

      I heard doing things like brushing your teeth with your other hand or taking different routes when you take a walk can help. When you do things habitually you aren’t using your brain so much as you are using muscle memory. When you change things you have to think about it so you are exercising your brain.

  12. Murph1908 says:

    Wouldn’t a ‘gullibility detector’ be used by the scammer, and not the target?

    Seems a misnomer to me.

    • Zelgadis says:

      Precisely what I was just thinking.

    • KieranM says:

      As a former copy editor (a job that promotes OCD in those not already afflicted with it), I try to be tolerant of others’ grammatical slip-ups. I try to limit my didactic rantings, I really do. But “gullibility detector” made me want to break down and weep. I read this phrase over and over, hoping against hope that I was mistaken in the way the writer was using the words … but nope. (sigh)

  13. edicius is an acquired taste says:

    I don’t know, I’ve always thought that Doug Stanhope had a point when it came to gullibility in the elderly – and yes, I know I’ve posted this before, but it bears repeating.

    “‘Oh, they took advantage of us because we’re old! They told us we won a brand new Mercedes and that all we’d have to do is leave $8,000 dollars in a brown paper sack in a locker at the bus station. We were skeptical at first ’cause we’ve been burned like this eleven or twelve times before, but it’s because we’re old!’

    No, it’s because you’re dumb as a stick and you always have been.”

    Sure, there’s probably some truth in this whole gullibility detector wear down, but some people are just stupid too.

    • Not Given says:

      The scammers do keep coming back to the well again and again once they’ve found a good mark.

      • iesika says:

        I’ve heard (completely anecdotal) tell of some of these folks fishing via phone and then selling the phone numbers of the particularly elderly and gullible in lists, the way that people buy and sell emails and zombie computer clouds. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit, particularly since I doubt that’s even illegal.

  14. redskull says:

    I just hope I have enough money for someone to want to scam me out of it when I’m 80.

  15. Ben says:

    Don’t you mean their bullshit detectors wear down with age? If their gullibility detectors wear down with age, that would instead indicate that elderly are less effective scammers, not more effectively scammed.

  16. XianZomby says:

    I realize “they’re not called gullibility detectors, per se” but I don’t think they should be called gullibility detectors at all. Having a finely tuned “gullibility detector” is something that best serves the scammer, not the potential victim.

    How about “credibility detector” instead?

    “The elderly are more gullible and therefore more easily scammed, because their credibility detectors are worn out. The scammers, due to their finely tuned gullibility detectors, are able to detect the gullibility of the elderly, and others, and so are poised to take advantage.”

    The elderly lose their ability to determine who is credible and who is not. It is their inability to detect credibility that makes them gullible, not their ability to detect gullibility.

  17. Smiling says:

    I think quite a bit of it has to do with the intelligence level of the person. The people I have watched grow old who have not fallen prey to this have been people who were intelligent in their younger and middle years. The family members I have seen fall prey were people who weren’t the brightest to begin with.

    My mom and I stay right on top of my grandmother and she still gets scammed. Even if you are really involved, you can’t be with them 24/7. We tell her not to answer phone calls when she doesn’t recognize the number. We have kept her from having a computer and the internet because she would lose every penny if she had it. Mom mom helps her will her bills and checkbook weekly, and her front gate is locked to prevent door-to-door sales people. Yet, when she goes to department stores, she ends up with store credit cards after not remembering signing up for them. She ends up getting charged for merchandise she never purchased or bought home. She has had more than one clerk who did not give her a receipt, yet she was charged double or triple of what she bought. It never occurs to her to speak to a manager, etc.. until after the fact when it is her word against theirs. She is getting to the point where my mom is considering getting financial control so that she won’t be robbed of every dime she has.

  18. Kuri says:

    Another factor I think is that many seem ot have a rose colored idea that in their day people were far more polite.

  19. Pandora says:

    Wait.

    The article is about elderly people who become more gullible as they grow older, and therefore, are more susceptible to scams.

    A gullibility detector would, presumably, detect gullibility.

    So if “Scientists Say Elderly Get Scammed More Because Their Gullibility Detectors Wear Down With Age”, then are the elderly supposed to be detecting their own gullibility?

    Logic bomb or bad writing?

    *head explodes*

  20. Shanti says:

    Yet the biggest scam I notice that all the elderly I know is…repeating the news without ever questioning it. It makes me sad because I go to their house and they have a stack of books from the talking head that told them to buy them. Then they send in money to help whatever cause is being promoted, usually “fighting” some group by lining the pockets of the talking head. And take it out on innocent people trying to help them because they belong to whatever evil group of the day the talking head points at. I don’t care if they want to watch cartoons all day and I don’t want their money, just don’t like them hiding in their house afraid of everybody and sending their money off to talking heads.