Brain scans link concern for justice with reason, not emotion
Date: March 28, 2014
Source: University of Chicago
People who care about justice are swayed more by reason than emotion. That is the unexpected finding of new brain scan research from the University of Chicago department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.
Psychologists have found that some individuals react more strongly than others to situations that invoke a sense of justice — for example, seeing a person being treated unfairly, or with mercy. The new study used brain scans to analyze the thought processes of people with high “justice sensitivity.”
“We were interested to examine how individual differences about justice and fairness are represented in the brain to better understand the contribution of emotion and cognition in moral judgment,” explained lead author Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry.
Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain-scanning device, the team studied what happened in the participants’ brains as they judged videos depicting behavior that was morally good or bad. For example, they saw a person put money in a beggar’s cup or kick the beggar’s cup away. The participants were asked to rate on a scale how much they would blame or praise the actor seen in the video. People in the study also completed questionnaires that assessed cognitive and emotional empathy, as well as their justice sensitivity.
As expected, study participants who scored high on the justice sensitivity questionnaire assigned significantly more blame when they were evaluating scenes of harm, Decety said. They also registered more praise for scenes showing a person helping another individual.
But the brain imaging also yielded surprises. During the behavior-evaluation exercise, people with high justice sensitivity showed more activity than average participants in parts of the brain associated with higher-order cognition. Brain areas commonly linked with emotional processing were not affected.
The conclusion was clear, Decety said: “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven. Rather, they are cognitively driven.”
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