How can you tell that a herbal supplement may not be a miracle pill, or that a "Nigerian prince" is actually of dubious nobility? Most people would say it's as simple as using your brain.
But new research suggests that, for some of us, it may not be that easy. The findings have implications for the growing population of seniors, their families and caregivers, and for the advertising industry in general.
A study from the University of Iowa has linked one specific part of the brain with our ability to doubt. When we are given information, we depend on an oval-shaped lobe in the front of our brains to turn on the skepticism. It's called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or the bottom-middle section of the prefrontal cortex – that part of the brain that is crucial for governing much of our behaviour, including personality traits, social conduct and decision-making.
Before now, scientists did not know which part of the prefrontal cortex was responsible for our ability to doubt. The researchers found it by testing subjects' reactions to misleading advertising.
The study tracked people with damage to that section of the prefrontal cortex. They were shown ads that had been determined by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to be "misleading," such as an ad for a natural supplement to treat headaches that claimed to have no side effects, and for luggage that touted "American Quality" but was made in Mexico.
Researchers showed the same ads to people with damage to other parts of the brain and to participants with no brain damage. Those with damaged ventromedial prefrontal cortexes were twice as likely as the others to believe the ads, and to say they would buy the products.
Why should those of us without brain damage care about this softball-sized chunk of grey matter? Because it's a part of the brain that naturally deteriorates as we age and is often damaged by a stroke.
While some people can reach the age of 90 without losing function, at least some damage to this part of the brain is common enough among seniors to raise questions about the ethics of marketing to this segment of the population. And it raises even more red flags about scams targeted at the elderly.
"As you normally age, this is the first thing to go," said neuroscientist Erik Asp, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago and the lead author of the study. "These are vulnerable populations."
That understanding is crucial for caregivers. When an elderly family member falls victim to a scam – or simply makes unwise buying decisions influenced by ads – it can be easy to assume they would have to be stupid to fall for those messages, Mr. Asp said. But very intelligent people can just as easily lose their capacity for doubt if this part of the brain is affected.
That will be a growing concern as Canada's population of seniors grows: People 65 and older are projected to make up nearly 17 per cent of the population by 2016, and will jump to roughly a quarter of Canada's population in the next 25 years, according to Statistics Canada.
Those seniors are getting wealthier, making them an attractive target: From 1908 to 2005, the median income of married senior couples rose 34 per cent, and seniors living alone saw their median income jump more than 40 per cent.
People in their 60s are the most targeted group in Canada for "mass marketing fraud," including telemarketing scams, identity fraud, and scams linked to West Africa, according to statistics from the Canadian Anti-fraud Centre. But if the reported cases among people in their 70s and 80s are lower, it may not be because people are less targeted as they age. Seniors' advocacy group CARP also suggests that among the elderly, a large amount of financial abuse goes unreported.
"It's not just brain damage, it's damage to our social fabric" that leads to financial abuse, said Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy at CARP. Aside from family issues, factors such as social isolation can make the elderly more vulnerable, she said. "This is a targeted group for different reasons – and this is just one more [factor] to worry about."
Even if it is not a clear scam, people's judgment can be impaired even when it comes to regular advertising, and that can lead to questionable purchasing decisions.
However, it is incredibly difficult to protect seniors through regulation, because there is very little advertising that is targeted toward that group only. Regulators have been able to impose strictures on advertising to children. But a similar initiative would be harder to execute for the elderly and may risk infantilizing or insulting seniors.
However, Mr. Asp believes the study could be one more argument for stricter advertising standards in general.
The research helped him prove how the cognitive process of doubt works. It is relatively easy to receive a message, but the brain has to work harder – using this section of the prefrontal cortex – to convert that reception into disbelief.
"If there's misleading advertising … we're really biased toward believing things. It takes more effort to disbelieve," Mr. Asp said.
Now that the brain function connected to doubt – and the vulnerability of that part of the brain – has been identified, Mr. Asp believes it could help with neurological treatment. And he says it contains an important lesson both for the growing population of seniors and the growing number of caregivers as well.
"If you lose the biological mechanism to be able to doubt by the natural process of aging, that has important implications … ," Mr. Asp said. "Hopefully that goes a long way to helping caregivers understand that plight."