In psychological terms, context is almost everything. Much as we like to think that we know how we will act and react in a given situation, without the richness of...
Life runs in a strange cycle.
At the outset you’re an infant reliant on the care of your parents. As you get slightly older you begin to explore the world under their watchful gaze: which is just as well because, with no knowledge of the world around you, you’re going to make plenty of mistakes.
By your mid to late teens you’re fairly sure that you know all there is to know (the folly of which is reflected in the statistics that show the disproportionately high incidence of deaths involving young people and driving).
Having got your first job you realise that you don’t know anything after all.
A few years later you discover that no one else knows that much either.
Freed from any anxiety about your limitations, you will briefly find yourself seeing the world and your position in it as it really is.
Eventually, you reach the top of your career, something you can logically only discover when you’ve gone beyond your capabilities and find yourself horribly out of your depth.
Shortly after that you retire.
At which point, equipped with all of life’s wisdom, you’ll find yourself less able to make basic decisions, reluctant to tackle anything unfamiliar and increasingly reliant on your children to advise you on what to do. You’ll be overwhelmed by purchase decisions, baffled by the choice on offer and desperately failing to keep pace with technologies relentless progress.
To cap it all, you’re also more likely now than at any time since you genuinely believed that the plastic toy given away free with the comic was AMAZING, to find yourself duped by a salesperson, advertisement or member of your own family. (According to one study, 12% of Americans over 60 years of age had been exploited financially by a family member!).
If it’s any consolation this final stage isn’t your fault. It’s a consequence of your brain deteriorating. (Sorry, that probably isn’t much consolation, is it?)
By studying people with damage to different regions of the brain and showing them misleading adverts, researchers from the University of Iowa identified what area of the brain was key to distinguishing hype from reality.
They discovered that people with damage to one specific area (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex) were twice as likely to believe messages that other people saw through. Importantly, this is an area of the brain that deteriorates with age.
Crucially, the area of the brain involved in believing something appears to be separate from the part that is involved in doubt or scepticism.
This research suggests that regulators might need to pay particular attention to the mental processing of older consumers when evaluating sales practices and advertising.
Companies involved in marketing to these people might also benefit from considering the long term benefits of not exploiting this potential weakness in evaluation: having an anxious and confused customer base is not likely to be better for anyone.
On a personal level it’s less clear what, if anything, can slow down the brain’s deterioration: drinking plenty of water, diet and doing puzzles have all been touted as beneficial (and disputed too).
Perhaps the best you can do is take a moment now, whilst your mental acuity is sharp, work out who in the family tree is most likely to weasel you out of your pension, and put a warning note on your fridge door to your future self telling you not to trust them!
Source: Erik Asp, Kenneth Manzel, Bryan Koestner, Catherine A. Cole, Natalie L. Denburg, Daniel Tranel. A Neuropsychological Test of Belief and Doubt: Damage to Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Increases Credulity for Misleading Advertising. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2012; 6 DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2012.00100
Image courtesy: Takeshi Garcia