Monday, July 27, 2009

Emotional reaction to moral issues happens in the brain   posted by Razib @ 7/27/2009 11:50:00 PM

A new neuroscience take on moral psychology, Right or Wrong? The brain's fast response to morally objectionable statements:
How does the brain respond to statements that clash with a person's value system? We recorded EEG potentials while respondents from contrasting political-ethical backgrounds completed an attitude survey on drugs, medical ethics, social conduct and other issues. Our results show that value-based disagreement is unlocked by language extremely rapidly, within 200-250 milliseconds after the first word at which a statement begins to clash with the reader's value system (e.g., "I think euthanasia is an acceptable/unacceptable...."). Furthermore, strong disagreement rapidly influences the ongoing analysis of meaning, indicating that even very early processes in language comprehension are sensitive to a person's value system. Our results testify to rapid reciprocal links between neural systems for language and for valuation.

You can read a preprint at the link, or, ScienceDaily's summary. The authors reference Jonathan Haidt's findings, which suggest that moral values have less to do with reason than emotionally colored intuition. Anyone familiar with the importance of emotion in decision making and judgement, or the heuristics & biases literature, won't be surprised by these results. The main obvious implication is that yes, psychology does manifest biophysically in the brain.

My interest is not in general average propensities, but individual differences. Bryan Caplan has shown for example that intelligence is correlated with economic rationality. To some extent one might view this as another fruit of high g, but another unrelated component might be the way in which emotions express themselves when faced with assertions counter to one's intuition or moral outlook. One problem that I face with many extremely intelligent individuals is a reflexive aversion to entertaining possibilities or thought experiments which are abhorrent to their moral or political orientation. One the one hand these emotional responses probably have an important role in sorting and ranking the order in which one performs cognitive tasks. Many thought experiments are after all useless. But when feeling has reason too tightly on the leash there is unfortunately a tendency for it to constrain the search space of intellectual possibilities.

It would be interested to see if there is an aspect of rationality which is related to the ability of individuals to suppress or shunt aside the power of emotional response, a dynamic which I presume could be ferreted out by various imaging techniques. As an analogy, those with higher g may have more powerful tools, but to some extent there is something to be said for willingness to use the tools one has on hand as well.

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