Magnets mask morals

If you think your morals are immutable, think again. It turns out nothing more complicated than a set of magnetic pulses could impair moral judgments.

Researchers at the Massachussets Institute of Technology have identified the so-called moral compass as being a section of the brain known as the right temporo-parietal junction, located just behind the right ear (marked in red in the picture above.) They found this through brain scans which showed increased activity in the area when moral judgments were being made.

The researchers then carried out two sets of tests to see if this could be manipulated, both involving the use of magnetic stimulation to create an electrical current which temporarily disables the relevant part of the brain.

In one test, it was found that a 25 minute sessions of stimulation left volunteers who read a story judging the characters by events rather than by their intentions.

In the other test, the participants were given the current for just half a second. The scenarios in this test included one where a man let his girlfriend cross a bridge he knew to be unsafe. After receiving the magnetic pulse, participants were much more likely to consider the man had acted acceptably.

Another scenario involved a character visiting a chemical plant making coffee for a friend and taking sugar from a container marked “toxic”. After receiving the pulse, participants were more likely to consider the character hadn’t acted irresponsibly as no harm came to her friend.

In both sets of tests it appears the specific difference was that judgments became biased towards assessing outcomes and downplayed the perceived importance of people’s intentions.

The researchers say this is only one part of the puzzle: moral judgments also include factors such as the circumstances and previous behavior of the person being judged.

The next step in the research is to investigate what role luck plays in the way a person is judged by others. One example would be the difference between a drunk driver who kills a pedestrian and one who avoids any incident: though the only difference between the two is luck, most people would probably take a harsher view of the former’s behavior.

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4 Responses to Magnets mask morals

  1. Actually, the area marked in red is behind the left ear, as we are seeing the left side of the brain (the stem is at the back, the big frontal cortex at the front)

  2. Actually, the area marked in red is behind the left ear, as we are seeing the left side of the brain (the stem is at the back, the big frontal cortex at the front)