Profit vs. principle: the neurobiology of integrity

Wired Science reports: Let your better self rest assured: Dearly held values truly are sacred, and not merely cost-benefit analyses masquerading as nobel intent, concludes a new study on the neurobiology of moral decision-making. Such values are conceived differently, and occur in very different parts of the brain, than utilitarian decisions.

“Why do people do what they do?” said neuroscientist Greg Berns of Emory University. “Asked if they’d kill an innocent human being, most people would say no, but there can be two very different ways of coming to that answer. You could say it would hurt their family, that it would be bad because of the consequences. Or you could take the Ten Commandments view: You just don’t do it. It’s not even a question of going beyond.”

In a study published Jan. 23 in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Berns and colleagues posed a series of value-based statements to 27 women and 16 men while using an fMRI machine to map their mental activity. The statements were not necessarily religious, but intended to cover a spectrum of values ranging from frivolous (“You enjoy all colors of M&Ms”) to ostensibly inviolate (“You think it is okay to sell a child”).

After answering, test participants were asked if they’d sign a document stating the opposite of their belief in exchange for a chance at winning up to $100 in cash. If so, they could keep both the money and the document; only their consciences would know.

According to Berns, this methodology was key. The conflict between utilitarian and duty-based moral motivations is a classic philosophical theme, with historical roots in the formulations of Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant, and other researchers have studied it — but none, said Berns, had combined both brain imaging and a situation where moral compromise was realistically possible.

“Hypothetical vignettes are presented to people, and they’re asked, ‘How did you arrive at a decision?’ But it’s impossible to really know in a laboratory setting,” said Berns. “Signing your name to something for a price is meaningful. It’s getting into integrity. Even at $100, most all our test subjects put some things into categories they were willing to take money for, and others they wouldn’t.”

When test subjects agreed to sell out, their brains displayed common signatures of activity in regions previously linked to calculating utility. When they refused, activity was concentrated in other parts of their brains: the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which is known to be involved in processing and understanding abstract rules, and the right temporoparietal junction, which has been implicated in moral judgement.

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2 thoughts on “Profit vs. principle: the neurobiology of integrity

  1. Warren Metzler

    Once again the “scientific” community has conned people with unsubstantiated nonsense. From the beginning of us humans intellectually knowing rational thinking was possible (shortly after B.C. 500), it was realized that association is not evidence of causality. For example, tons of car congregate outside the Lincoln Tunnel (New Jersey to Manhattan) at rush hour traffic. They are not there because it is 8.00 am, even though it is 8.00 am that they are there. They are there at 8.00 am, because that is when most people go to work. So the time is not responsible for their presence.

    Similarly, just because brain scanning technology reveals a particular brain activity when humans think of a particular activities, doesn’t mean the brain in any way directed that activity. Further, having people think about an activity in an artificial environment, for example testing lab instead of real life conditions where what is thought about in the lab actually happens, is in no way indicative of how the research subjects will respond, in regard to the issue being considered, if that issue is spontaneously (unexpectedly) encountered in a real life situation.

    Sadly most people doesn’t recognize how often science creates nonsense. Because the vast majority of “facts” about the human condition that are popular are fundamental nonsense.

  2. DE Teodoru

    Mr. Metzler, bravo!

    The “f” for “functional” in fMRI is quite a misnomer as can be seen from the very limited use permitted by health insurance plans and Medicare/Medicaid. Brain functional is more AXIAL than lateral, with laminar and columnar processing we still don’t understand. So we’re making correlations and correlations lead to tangles.

    If region A interacts with region B below it and then a couple of other regions, the fMRI cannot catch the sequence because it needs about a minute of relaxation time to compute the “f.” Anatomically, parts standing still can be easily enough drawn up. ut for dynamic processes that flux within 100 milliseconds, I don’t think MRI technology has a lot of “f” to it.

    Science is based on using what you’ve got. So research is based on using the machines available. For example, few hospitals have EEG machines anymore but more have MRIs. If your lab is in such an institution, what kind of “techniques” will you be using. That’s a problem of science today: a lot of pseudo-data produced to stay employed by using what you’ve got on hand and then hyping what it produces. But you’ll notice that fMRI guys all seem to congregate reporting in their fMRI results and making theories based on, yes, fMRI modeling. Much more is achieved with neuronal computer modeling but then it can’t be used in such cavalier declarations. Neverthelss, people that do science together, don’t prey on eachother as they do on Wall Street. But don’t give up on science as it makes us all far more constructive than faiths that make us sooooo destructive.

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