The suspense behind suspicion revealed!

The study authors believe a person's baseline suspicion may have important consequences for his or her financial success

Guy giving suspicious looks
Suspicion is our brain's way of protecting us from harm

Suspicion is a strange phenomenon. Although it is regarded as a bad thing, it actually serves us by keeping us on our toes and helping us avoid situations that are potentially harmful or even dangerous for us. But have you ever been curious about how suspicion works?

Scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute found that suspicion resides in two distinct regions of the brain: the amygdala, which plays a central role in processing fear and emotional memories, and the parahippocampal gyrus, which is associated with declarative memory and the recognition of scenes.

"We wondered how individuals assess the credibility of other people in simple social interactions," said Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and the Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, who led the study. "We found a strong correlation between the amygdala and a baseline level of distrust, which may be based on a person's beliefs about the trustworthiness of other people in general, his or her emotional state, and the situation at hand. What surprised us, though, is that when other people's behavior aroused suspicion, the parahippocampal gyrus lit up, acting like an inborn lie detector."

The researchers studied buyer and seller behaviour in which the buyer had to buy widgets from the seller. The experiment was designed such that aroused suspicion in the seller's mind about the buyer. "The more uncertain a seller was about a buyer's credibility," Montague said, "the more active his or her parahippocampal gyrus became."

The authors believe a person's baseline suspicion may have important consequences for his or her financial success. "People with a high baseline suspicion were often interacting with fairly trustworthy buyers, so in ignoring the information those buyers provided, they were giving up potential profits," said Meghana Bhatt, the first author on the research paper. "The ability to recognise credible information in a competitive environment can be just as important as detecting untrustworthy behaviour."

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