The price of your soul: How the brain decides whether to 'sell out'

January 22, 2012

An Emory University neuro-imaging study shows that personal values that people refuse to disavow, even when offered cash to do so, are processed differently in the brain than those values that are willingly sold.

"Our experiment found that the realm of the sacred – whether it's a strong religious belief, a national identity or a code of ethics – is a distinct cognitive process," says Gregory Berns, director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University and lead author of the study. The results were published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Sacred values prompt greater activation of an area of the associated with rules-based, right-or-wrong thought processes, the study showed, as opposed to the regions linked to processing of costs-versus-benefits.

Berns headed a team that included economists and information scientists from Emory University, a psychologist from the New School for Social Research and anthropologists from the Institute Jean Nicod in Paris, France. The research was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation.

"We've come up with a method to start answering scientific questions about how people make decisions involving sacred values, and that has major implications if you want to better understand what influences human behavior across countries and cultures," Berns says. "We are seeing how fundamental cultural values are represented in the brain."

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record the brain responses of 32 U.S. adults during key phases of an experiment. In the first phase, participants were shown statements ranging from the mundane, such as "You are a tea drinker," to hot-button issues such "You support gay marriage" and "You are Pro-Life." Each of the 62 statements had a contradictory pair, such as "You are Pro-Choice," and the participants had to choose one of each pair.

At the end of the experiment, participants were given the option of auctioning their personal statements: Disavowing their previous choices for actual money. The participants could earn as much as $100 per statement by simply agreeing to sign a document stating the opposite of what they believed. They could choose to opt out of the auction for statements they valued highly.

"We used the auction as a measure of integrity for specific statements," Berns explains. "If a person refused to take money to change a statement, then we considered that value to be personally sacred to them. But if they took money, then we considered that they had low integrity for that statement and that it wasn't sacred."

The brain imaging data showed a strong correlation between sacred values and activation of the neural systems associated with evaluating rights and wrongs (the left temporoparietal junction) and semantic rule retrieval (the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex), but not with systems associated with reward.

"Most public policy is based on offering people incentives and disincentives," Berns says. "Our findings indicate that it's unreasonable to think that a policy based on costs-and-benefits analysis will influence people's behavior when it comes to their sacred personal values, because they are processed in an entirely different brain system than incentives."

Research participants who reported more active affiliations with organizations, such as churches, sports teams, musical groups and environmental clubs, had stronger brain activity in the same brain regions that correlated to sacred values. "Organized groups may instill values more strongly through the use of rules and social norms," Berns says.

The experiment also found activation in the amygdala region, a brain region associated with emotional reactions, but only in cases where participants refused to take cash to state the opposite of what they believe. "Those statements represent the most repugnant items to the individual," Berns says, "and would be expected to provoke the most arousal, which is consistent with the idea that when sacred values are violated, that induces moral outrage."

The study is part of a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, titled "The Biology of Cultural Conflict." Berns edited the special issue, which brings together a dozen articles on the culture of neuroscience, including differences in the neural processing of people on the opposing sides of conflict, from U.S. Democrats and Republicans to Arabs and Israelis.

"As culture changes, it affects our brains, and as our brains change, that affects our culture. You can't separate the two," Berns says. "We now have the means to start understanding this relationship, and that's putting the relatively new field of cultural neuroscience onto the global stage."

Future conflicts over politics and religion will likely play out biologically, Berns says. Some cultures will choose to change their biology, and in the process, change their culture, he notes. He cites the battles over women's reproductive rights and gay marriage as ongoing examples.

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19 comments

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Telekinetic
4 / 5 (2) Jan 22, 2012
Interesting experiment, but moral conflict didn't seem to enter into the scene during the electrocution experiments conducted years ago. Participants were led to believe that their ever-increasing voltage to a screaming captive was fine and not to be deterred. Did any of them refuse to continue with the shocks? No. I think the earlier experiment is more revealing.
kevinrtrs
Jan 23, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Parsec
4 / 5 (5) Jan 23, 2012
Interesting experiment, but moral conflict didn't seem to enter into the scene during the electrocution experiments conducted years ago. Participants were led to believe that their ever-increasing voltage to a screaming captive was fine and not to be deterred. Did any of them refuse to continue with the shocks? No. I think the earlier experiment is more revealing.

Actually, many people refused to administer shocks. The amazing part of the result was the number of people who continued to administer shocks that were clearly marked on the instrument panel as dangerous or even lethal.
Tausch
2 / 5 (2) Jan 23, 2012
Duality dilemmas give rise to useless data.
The point of associations is not their location.
The point of associations is the meaning created.

Nothing can "violate a sacred value".
This is scientifically equivalent to an absolute frame of reference for a unit (of anything).

Neither exist.
If you pretend absolutes exist - then relationships to that remain static for all time.

No two neurological maps/pathways are the same.
No pathway is taken twice - biochemically impossible.
No pathway remains the from second to second.

Researchers must find how meaning remains static or consistence in a physical world - the brain/mind - where nothing exists except dynamics or continuous change.

Or I will do this for them...for free.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Jan 23, 2012
"If a person refused to take money to change a statement, then we considered that value to be personally sacred to them. But if they took money, then we considered that they had low integrity for that statement and that it wasn't sacred."


This is a bit iffy. To some 100$ is a lot of money. To others it is not. Even if your values are up for auction at a (to you) very low price 100$ may not have been enough.

So to say that some of these values are 'sacred' because the money was not taken is not an unambiguous conclusion.
roboferret
4.2 / 5 (5) Jan 23, 2012
Kevin,
I hope you're keeping your unclean and clean beasts separate, and staying away from wizards - as commanded by your capricious god in the same passage as he condemns homosexuality (Leviticus 20). Also your God condones the killing of babies (Psalms 137:9) so don't lose any sleep over the unborn. Sadly your world-view has been so distorted you can't see how immoral your views really are.
Telekinetic
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 23, 2012
"Marriage is to be between one man and one woman only."-Kevinrtrs

Not to some members of the Mormon Church, it ain't.
Xbw
1 / 5 (9) Jan 23, 2012
"Marriage is to be between one man and one woman only."-Kevinrtrs

Not to some members of the Mormon Church, it ain't.


Did I miss something? Are the Mormons supporting Adam and Steve nowadays?
NeptuneAD
not rated yet Jan 23, 2012
I think what Telekinetic was trying to say was that some male members of the Mormon Church have multiple wives, although clearly if that was true and known to the Church they would be excommunicated, perhaps he was thinking of a breakaway sect.

As for this article, I am of the opinion that there are far to many variables, as has been noted in the comments already, to be certain about much at all.
kochevnik
1 / 5 (5) Jan 23, 2012
In this experiment you can watch participant's brains changing as they sell out in real time: http://www.youtub..._4mGTs98
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Jan 23, 2012
true and known to the Church they would be excommunicated, perhaps he was thinking of a breakaway sect.
Yes I am sure FLDS would take him in. Or he could become a moslem.
The real issue then is about whether one will obey God or deny His existence: "Reproductive rights" is nothing more than murdering the unborn - who by the way are just as fully human and alive as the person reading this.
Indeed kevin and so are the many who are born to religionists for the sole purpose of fighting and dying during adolescence in support of their god. Because they literally have nothing better to do.

"3Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.

3Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.

4As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.

5Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate."
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Jan 23, 2012
You religionists are responsible for the forced reproduction which is causing the kind of population pressure and resultant conflict worldwide, which makes abortion NECESSARY.

Without religions, women would be able to do meaningful things with their lives besides raising large families. People could be educated in contraception, living responsibly, and planning for the future. This would alleviate the need for abortion.

Instead their religions teach them that a womans proper place is in the home, making and raising babies. Women in your cultures are allowed to do little else BUT this.

Religionist cultures are solely responsible for the ONE BILLION abortions which have occured worldwide within the last 100 years. Without these abortions and the family planning programs which prevented many more, northern eurasia would again have descended into war, this time nuclear. Abortion saved the world despite religions efforts to consume it.

The blood of the unborn is on YOUR hands.
Telekinetic
5 / 5 (1) Jan 23, 2012
@ NeptuneAD:
Here's something to help you with your uncertainty:
"San Angelo, Texas After prosecutors rested their case against Warren Jeffs on Wednesday by playing an audiotape of an alleged sex assault on a 12-year-old girl, Jeffs began his defense by telling jurors about Mormon history and scripture."
It's still going on in the U.S. even after Jeffs' conviction.
Telekinetic
not rated yet Jan 23, 2012
@Parsec:
"Of the 40 participants in the study, 26 delivered the maximum shocks while 14 stopped before reaching the highest levels. It is important to note that many of the subjects became extremely agitated, distraught and angry at the experimenter. Yet they continued to follow orders all the way to the end."
Argiod
not rated yet Jan 23, 2012
I think what Telekinetic was trying to say was that some male members of the Mormon Church have multiple wives, although clearly if that was true and known to the Church they would be excommunicated, perhaps he was thinking of a breakaway sect.

As for this article, I am of the opinion that there are far to many variables, as has been noted in the comments already, to be certain about much at all.


Only the original Mormans held multiple wives. When they desired the benefits of statehood, they sold out to monogamy. However, at least Muslims still hold to having multiple wives. So, legal polygamy is sill alive and practiced somewhere in the world.
Just because something is against one religion does not make it either good or bad. All religious practices arose out of the need to have rules to live by; determined by the environment and the needs of the society involved. What is sacred to one, may be an abomination to another. The point to tolerance in the USA...
Argiod
not rated yet Jan 24, 2012
...point to tolerance in the USA is to learn not to kill your neighbor just because he doesn't agree with your philosophy. This may sound idealistic, and it is. And I, too, have reservations about any religion that preaches such intolerance that it thinks it is God's will for them to kill all who do not follow them. It is a very insecure peoples who cannot tolerate the mere existence of those who disagree with them.
Callum_M
not rated yet Jan 24, 2012
@Parsec

It's also Important to note that all but 1 or 2 participants administered lethal (but perhaps not maximum) voltages.
The presence of an experimenter to urge the subject to continue, and the drama around showing the participant that their 'patient' couldn't be permanently harmed further muddies the waters.
Milgram's study was intended to investigate the effects of authority figures on moral conflict, so really isn't too applicable here.
HealingMindN
not rated yet Jan 25, 2012
How did the participants qualify? Did they have to belong to one or more social circles (w/value systems)? How did they know if they didn't get a sociopath or habitual liar? Then the participant would lie because they needed the cash.
HealingMindN
not rated yet Jan 25, 2012
Actually, many people refused to administer shocks. The amazing part of the result was the number of people who continued to administer shocks that were clearly marked on the instrument panel as dangerous or even lethal.


Those are the ones that went on to work for the gov't.

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