December 03, 2012, 3:03 PM — Older Americans get ripped off each year to the tune of nearly $3 billion, according to MetLife, which last year released a detailed study on elder financial abuse.
While it's perhaps tempting to assume that older people can be easily ripped off because they're desperate (financial schemes) or easily confused by double-talk (home-repair swindles), a new UCLA study pinpoints a different culprit:
Older people, more than younger adults, may fail to interpret an untrustworthy face as potentially dishonest, the study shows. The reason for this, the UCLA life scientists found, seems to be that a brain region called the anterior insula, which is linked to disgust and is important for discerning untrustworthy faces, is less active in older adults.
"Older adults seem to be particularly vulnerable to interpersonal solicitations, and their reduced sensitivity to cues related to trust may partially underlie this vulnerability," said Shelley E. Taylor, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA and senior author of the new research.
The research appears in the online journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and reports the results of two different studies.
In the first, 30 photographs of faces -- selected specifically to look trustworthy, neutral or untrustworthy -- were shown to 119 adults between the ages of 55 and 84 and 24 younger adults. Study participants were asked to rate the faces on trustworthiness and approachability.
The younger and older adults reacted very similarly to the trustworthy faces and to the neutral faces. However, when viewing the untrustworthy faces, the younger adults reacted strongly, while the older adults did not. The older adults saw these faces as more trustworthy and more approachable than the younger adults did.
"Most of the older adults showed this effect," Taylor said in a UCLA press release. "They missed facial cues that are pretty easily distinguished."
The second study is particularly fascinating because it analyzed participants' brain activity (using magnetic resonance imaging) as they viewed the faces. And while the first study established that older people were less likely to pick up facial cues communicating untrustworthiness, the second one shows researchers why.
The younger adults showed anterior insula activation both when they were making the ratings of the faces and especially when viewing the untrustworthy faces. In contrast, the older adults displayed very little anterior insula activation during these activities.
So what exactly constitutes an "untrustworthy" face? Taylor says, "The smile is insincere, the eye contact is off; it's a gestalt."
Well, that's not much detail! Here's what some researchers at the University of Kent came up with a few years ago after asking members of the British public to rate various faces on a trustworthiness scale...
Characteristics of a trustworthy face:
* Fuller, more rounded shape
* Jaw line softer in appearance
* Eyebrows thinner and less imposing
* The eyes are more rounded and larger
* Eyes also appear brighter
* Nose is more refined in shape, nostrils are smaller
* Larger mouth with thinner lips
* Smooth face with no facial hair
* Warmer, brighter complexion
Characteristics of an untrustworthy face:
* Overall shape more contoured
* Sharp, pointed jawline
* Eyebrows thicker, more knotted
* Eyes less rounded, relatively wider and more closed
* Eyes further apart
* Appearance of eyes are dull and darker
* Bridge of nose is wider and nostrils are measurably larger
* Smaller mouth with fuller lips
* Facial stubble is more prevalent
* Greyish, dull complexion