Emotional reaction to moral issues happens in the brain

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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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14 Comments

  1. Strong emotion often negatively correlates with performing IQ. As we know, emotion is from primitive part of human brain. Emotional reaction is like behaving like bird or reptile. 
     
    Cool head or calm emotion brings out best perfomance of higher cortex function. Guts reaction to jump to gun make people do stupid thing.

  2. 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. Yes. That aspect is precisely why the lobotomized were unable to deal with life problems despite having unaltered IQs – they completely lost the ability to repress and suppress impulses in context, leading to situations like those of a career thief who began simply taking things in plain view the moment he came across them. 
     
    The aspect is completely independent of IQ – which explains the phenomenon of the very brainy person who is nevertheless a complete fool.

  3. Caledonian, are you going to continue your posts on the topic at Less Wrong, or was that wrapped up?

  4. You should check out the work by Tetlock on taboo-tradeoffs, forbidden base rates and heretical counterfactuals (http://content.hks.harvard.edu/lernerlab/papers/files/Tetlock_2000_JPSP_Paper.pdf and many more available in full-text on line). In one of his papers he does describe an unusual group of experimental subjects he refers to as “Bayesian libertarians” who apparently are able to suppress or perhaps fail to develop usual emotional responses while reasoning. Bryan Caplan is one of them, Tyler Cowen just wrote a book about a related cognitive style, looks like the GMU dept of economics is overrun with them 
     
    And yes, I think of myself as a Bayesian libertarian too.

  5. TGGP: I’m trying to work up the motivation. Every contact I have with that site saps my will to live, much less write. 
     
    One more assertion like “sexual deprivation is like heroin withdrawal for men” from EY, and I may have to take desperate measures.

  6. Would be interesting to see if this correlates strongly with frontal lobe density/development

  7. It would be interesting so see if this correlates with frontal lobe development/frontal lobe density.

  8. According to Theodore Dalrymple, heroin withdrawal isn’t even like heroin withdrawal (in the popular understanding).

  9. Dally has a fair point, yet a gentle whiff of ideology is present, topically enough. Some other neural tract is quickening here in addition to the lobes of sweet logos. I’m sure he’s quite accurate about junkies putting on their tragedy mask for the doctor, but if he runs the same gag on pain patients, how much different will they be? There are few people in any kind of need who do not “round up” at all, especially if they were much worse hours or days ago. 
     
    MDs and men will always have a soft spot for alcohol and benzodiazapine withdrawal and their like. Seizures and psychotic suicides are good clean excitement. Unverifiable suffering is boring and is the subject of endless low-grade social conflicts on every scale, unresolvable and tediously subjective. They have bored the very stones of the earth since before Chicxulub, probably selecting exaggerated plaintiveness on one side, excess skepticism on the other. The weak are neurologically outfitted to exploit their allies, and the strong too find themselves equipped with something more than just pure reason. 
     
    Today, while a lot has been dulled, one has an ear for exactly these sort of things a little more than yesterday. This is the key limitation when one opens old history books to find out whose fault the Civil War was. We would like to telephone the 1850s and ask to speak to a bloodless observer prepared to lay down the last belief he had, but that dessicated and divorced logos, sharper than Wyeth’s drybrush temperas, had not yet come into its ascetic happiness. Particularly not in America.

  10. Cold-turkey withdrawal for some psychoactive drugs is harmful for physiological reasons. Severe alcoholics’ brain cells become hyperactive to the point of burning out if they’re deprived, for example. 
     
    It would be interesting to find out whether a severe addiction to opiates was as easy to immediately break out of as Dalrymple suggests. How quickly the particular drug broke down, and how quickly it took affect when administered, would also be relevant. 
     
    I should look further into this.

  11. Okay, my research indicates that vulnerable people can die due to heroin withdrawal – which is actually similar to a bad flu – and that people undergoing medical withdrawal are usually drugged specifically to dampen the effects, much as people often do when they go cold-turkey by themselves. Other depressants don’t fully compensate, but they help cushion the blow. Returning vets usually turned to legal depressants (like alcohol) when they could no longer get their opiate fix, but many still sought out illegal opiates regardless. 
     
    The half-life of heroin seems to be several days. Methadone’s is much shorter – about a day – and withdrawal from methadone can kill, more easily than the drug addiction it’s supposed to treat, it seems. 
     
    I’m not particularly impressed by this Dalrymple.

  12. Aren’t benzodiazapine and alcohol withdrawal far more dangerous, though? I think I’ve heard that damage/death due to opioid withdrawal exists but is exquisitely rare. 
     
    Dally is generally a good sort. My impression is that overall he looks back to the Belle Epoque. When it comes to art and architecture, this seems like a very good orientation indeed. His overall views on “medicalization” and psychiatric or dysfunctional individuals, on the other hand, I’m sympathetic to and leery of in mixed proportion.  
     
    He laments the death of bourgiouse emulation among the lower orders. Insightful, but I’m not sure how it would be restored. Poor people used to die a lot and that was probably a big reason for their upward-oriented striving and emulation.  
     
    He also think contemporary intellectuals have been idiot sophists more often than not, which seems accurate.

  13. Aren’t benzodiazapine and alcohol withdrawal far more dangerous, though? I think I’ve heard that damage/death due to opioid withdrawal exists but is exquisitely rare. Possibly. The easy availability of large amounts of alcohol makes comparisons difficult. 
     
    Sudden withdrawal for a very serious alcohol addict is an extremely bad thing. Delirium tremens is frequently lethal, associated with detectable brain damage in many cases, and probably causes some non-trivial amount of damage in all cases. Opioid withdrawal is claimed to be less physically dangerous.

  14. It was actually Dalrymple’s job as a doctor to deal with these heroin addicts, generally with them pleading to be given some prescription or other. I wonder how many died on him.

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