60-Second Mind

Manipulating Moral Judgment

Scientists find that when the area of the brain responsible for understanding the intent of others is disrupted, moral judgment is also affected. Christie Nicholson reports

Innocent? Or guilty? As any judge can tell you, it’s not so simple.  What was going in the defendant’s mind is important.  Underlying intent is a pretty big deal when it comes to moral judgment.

Past studies have shown that an area of the brain, the right temporoparietal junction, shows increased activity when people read about another’s intentions or beliefs.

So recently scientists wanted to see if impairment to the function of this area would have any effect on moral judgment.

Their paper appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The researchers disrupted the activity in this brain area using what’s called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). And they asked subjects to consider the morality of various acts. Some where the perpetrator had the intent to harm, others where they had no premeditation.

When subjects had their brains affected by TMS, they focused less on the intention of the perpetrator and more on the outcome of the act. Regardless of whether the protagonist wanted to poison their friend, if the friend was okay, then it wasn’t such a bad thing. As opposed to a lucky outcome after a heinous act.

The ultimate goal is to understand how the brain makes moral judgments. Because the real world is often less black and white, where judgment is easy, than shades of gray.

—Christie Nicholson

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