The Iowa authors say their research can explain why the elderly, like the subject of our story, are vulnerable.
“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,” they wrote. “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.”
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain the size of a softball lodged in the front of the human head, right above the eyes. It’s part of a larger area known to scientists since the extraordinary case of Phineas Gage that controls a range of emotions and behaviors, from impulsivity to poor planning.
But brain scientists have struggled to identify which regions of the prefrontal cortex govern specific emotions and behaviors, including the cognitive seesaw between belief and doubt.
Tests with a deceptive ad
In a study 500 seniors with various forms of documented brain damage were shown advertisements mimicking ones flagged as misleading by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to test how much they believed or doubted the ads. The deception in the ads was subtle; for example, an ad for “Legacy Luggage” that trumpets the gear as “American Quality” turned on the consumer’s ability to distinguish whether the luggage was manufactured in the United States versus inspected in the country.
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. 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.