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Heart Rules Head In Moral Decisions

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  • medit8ionsociety
    From Medical New Today site: Heart Rules Head In Moral Decisions US scientists studying how the brain behaves during decision making have discovered that when
    Message 1 of 1 , May 9, 2008
      From Medical New Today site:
      Heart Rules Head In Moral Decisions
      US scientists studying how the brain behaves during decision
      making have discovered that when people are confronted with
      moral decisions, they think about efficiency in one part of the
      brain, and equity in another part of the brain that deals with
      emotions, and the latter tends to win, suggesting that a sense
      of fairness is fundamental to human nature.

      The study is the work of researchers at University of Illinois and
      the California Institute of Technology, and appears in the 8th May
      issue of Science.

      What is the better decision: to give more food to a few hungry
      people (the efficient choice), or let some food go to waste so that
      everyone gets a fair share (the more equitable choice)?

      This was the dilemma faced by participants in the study, whose
      brains were scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging
      (fMRI) while they considered a series of tough decisions in a
      involving allocating food to children in a Ugandan orphanage.

      In setting up this study the researchers wanted firstly to explore
      whether equity or efficiency was stronger to our sense of justice,
      and secondly, they wanted to find out how big a role emotions
      played in resolving such questions.

      These two questions have been at the heart of longstanding
      debates about "distributive justice".

      Co-principal investigator Ming Hsu, a fellow of the Beckman
      Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University
      of Illinois, said that what makes us moral, and how we make trade
      offs, the fundamentals of moral choices, is a question that interests
      many scientists.

      Hsu said many of the subjects said afterwards that "This is the worst
      experiment I've ever been in. I never want to do anything like this

      The participants were given the following scenario.

      Each child in the orphanage starts with a monetary equivalent of
      24 meals, an actual gift from the researchers to the orphanage.

      Then, a number of meals is to be cut from the children's allotments.
      The number that is cut depends on choices the participant makes.

      Each decision, where the participant has to choose one of two
      options, comprises a moral dilemma where one option is efficient,
      and the other option is equitable. For instance, one could choose to
      take 15 meals from one child (option 1) or 13 meals from one child
      and 5 meals from another child (option 2). In option 1 fewer meals
      are lost (more efficient), and in option 2 more meals are lost (less
      efficient) but the burden is more "fairly" distributed.

      Hsu and colleagues said that this type of decision is a good example
      of a distributive justice dilemma, where each option is compelling,
      but you can't have both, so you have to trade one off against the

      The participants made their decisions by watching a computer
      where they were shown pictures of two choices at a time, each being a
      photograph of the children affected and a number showing the number
      of meals that would be lost if they chose that option. They chose
      option by selecting a lever that changed the path of a ball that was
      slowly moving across the screen.

      The results showed that participants overwhelmingly chose equity over

      "They were all quite inequity averse," said Hsu, who explained that
      the findings support other research that suggests people are fairly
      intolerant of inequity.

      While the participants watched the screen and made their selections,
      the researchers observed their brains with fMRI scanners. They were
      particularly interested in the brain activity at the time they made
      the decision.

      Three regions of the brain, the insula, putamen and caudate, were
      involved in different ways, at different points in the decision

      The insula was active when equity changes were being considered,
      the putamen was active when efficiency changes were being considered.
      And the caudate appeared to integrate equity and efficiency when the
      decision was taken.

      Hsu said that the involvement of the insula suggests that emotion is
      involved when a person is thinking about inequity.

      Studies have shown that the insula, which is involved in awareness of
      bodily states and emotions, becomes active when people feel hungry,
      crave drugs, or have intense feelings like anger, fear, disgust and
      happiness. Other studies have also suggested it mediates fairness.

      The authors said the putamen and the caudate regions of the brain
      become activate during reward-related learning.

      Hsu described what they saw. At first "you're seeing the signal in
      the insula
      and the putamen," he said, but "when they hit the lever you see the
      activation. And when the ball gets to the end you see (activation of)
      caudate," he added.

      Hsu explained that:

      "The putamen is responding only to the chosen efficiency, which is
      many meals get taken away from the kids or how many meals they end up

      "The insula, however, responded to how equitably the burden of lost
      meals was distributed," said Hsu.

      The authors wrote that the results showed how the brain "encodes two
      considerations central to the distributive justice calculus and shed
      on the cognitivist/sentimentalist debate regarding the psychological
      underpinnings of distributive justice".

      They suggested the findings support the notion that "a sense of
      fairness is fundamental to distributive justice, but, as suggested
      by moral sentimentalists, is rooted in emotional processing".

      On a more general level they suggested that:

      "Emotional responses related to norm violations may underlie
      individual differences in equity considerations and adherence to
      ethical rules."

      "The Right and the Good: Distributive Justice and Neural Encoding of
      Equity and Efficiency."
      Ming Hsu, C├ędric Anen, and Steven R. Quartz.
      Science.Published Online May 8, 2008.
      DOI: 10.1126/science.1153651.

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