Moral evaluations of harm are instant and emotional, brain study shows

November 29, 2012 by William Harms, University of Chicago
Researchers found that areas of the brain linked to moral decision-making were activated in adults who watched videos of people suffering intentional harm. There was no such response when the harm was accidental. Credit: Jean Decety

(Medical Xpress)—People are able to detect, within a split second, if a hurtful action they are witnessing is intentional or accidental, new research on the brain at the University of Chicago shows.

The study is the first to explain how the brain is hard-wired to recognize when another person is being intentionally harmed. It also provides new insights into how such recognition is connected with emotion and morality, said lead author Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at UChicago.

"Our data strongly support the notion that determining intentionality is the first step in moral computations," said Decety, who conducted research on the topic with Stephanie Cacioppo, a research associate (assistant professor) in psychology at UChicago. They published the results in a paper, "The Speed of Morality: A High-Density Electrical Neurological Study," to be published Dec. 1 and now on early preview in the Journal of Neurophysiology.

The researchers studied adults who watched videos of people who suffered accidental harm (such as being hit with a golf club) and intentional harm (such as being struck with a ). While watching the videos, was collected with equipment that accurately maps responses in different regions of the brain and importantly, the timing between these regions. The technique is known as high-density, event-related potentials technology.

The intentional harm sequence produced a response in the brain almost instantly. The study showed that within 60 milliseconds, the right posterior superior temporal sulcus (also known as TPJ area), located in the back of the brain, was first activated, with different activity depending on whether the harm was intentional or accidental. It was followed in quick succession by the amygdala, often linked with emotion, and the (180 milliseconds), the portion of the brain that plays a critical role in moral decision-making.

There was no such response in the and ventromedial prefrontal cortex when the harm was accidental.

Other studies with functional MRI scans, including those in Decety's lab, have shown that those areas of the brain become activated when people see others intentionally harmed, but those studies have been unable to separate or time the way the various parts of the may work together.

"High-density EEG/ERPs can identify spatio-temporal patterns of communication between regions that contrast analyses (such as fMRI) with low temporal resolution may not detect, and such methods are necessary to advance knowledge of neuroscience of morality," said Cacioppo.

The ability to recognize and respond emotionally to the intentional infliction of harm is a critical source of morality that is universal across cultures, researchers believe. "It is part of humans' evolutionary heritage," Decety said. "The long history of mammalian evolution has shaped our brains to be sensitive to signs of suffering of others. And this constitutes a natural foundation for morality and sensitivity to justice."      

Philosophers have debated the origins of this moral response for ages. Some maintain that moral judgments begin with an immediate aversive reaction to perceived or imagined harm to victims, though the full moral judgment may form only after the fact. Other philosophers maintain that moral principals develop from reason alone and are not connected to emotion.

The new research suggests that emotion and the perception of intentionality, rather than deliberate reasoning, comprise the vital first component of moral responses—at least for responses that stem from care for others Decety said.

The research may help inform other areas of neurodevelopment research, including studies of the moral responses of psychopaths and of children who lack empathy for others, displaying what are called callous-unemotional traits.

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1 / 5 (1) Nov 29, 2012
Republicans seem to be missing this area of their brain.

Research needs to be done to explain this.
not rated yet Nov 29, 2012
"Our data strongly support the notion that determining intentionality is the first step in moral computations," said Decety

The only response to a morale dilemma will be a random response - one left to chance. A random event. Whether observed or not observed. You can not show intentionality. Much less map it.

And this constitutes a natural foundation for morality and sensitivity to justice."

No. There is no "natural foundation" for morality and sensitivity.
"...and sensitivity." is added as obfuscation.

Let's correct this:
"The long history of mammalian evolution has shaped our brains to be sensitive to signs of suffering of others. And this constitutes a natural foundation for morality and sensitivity to justice."

to this:
"The long history of mammalian evolution has shaped our brains to be INsensitive to signs of suffering of others. And this constitutes a natural foundation for indifference."

What quote describes humans?
Yes. Correct.

not rated yet Nov 29, 2012
Thank GOD that HE DESIGNED a part of the brain to acknowledge when victims are bludgeoned with a baseball bat. There are no fossil records of baseball bats! Where is Kevin?
not rated yet Nov 29, 2012
This concept of intentionality is interesting in a number of respects:

Whether or not one accepts the concept of "theory of mind" as commonly held, the elements of intentionality are the recognition of one's own perception of self-determination, followed by its extension to others.

An inability to differentiate intent from happenstance might mean the difference between survival or being eaten - not to mention witch hunts, theism / animism and paranoia.

The morality issue is tangential - emotional responses are faster than intellectual ones, period. It's generally held that the limbic system evolved to prioritise flight-or-fight responses, and 'malicious' intent is as primal a concern as it gets...
not rated yet Nov 30, 2012
Moral dilemmas (evaluations) have been treated extensively:

The solution to the hypothetical dilemma - see link - is to form or morph the event into an event that is random.
Astute readers noted that the event is already random when the person placed in the dilemma remains inactive (does nothing but observe.) The position of the switch is a random event before being touched.

If you 'need' to show a 'token' of intent, you switch the switch with closed eyes back and forth not knowing the moment of position of the switch that decides the outcome.

That solution is an intellectual solution inducing the least emotional response to the dilemma - there is no 'morality' in a random event.

Refuse to bow to the lateralization of function when the function is to serve the concept of morality.

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