Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) neuroscientists have shown they can influence people’s moral judgments by disrupting the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) of the brain. A finding, they say, that helps reveal how the brain constructs morality.
To make moral judgments about other people, we often need to infer their intentions – an ability known as “theory of mind.” Previous studies have shown that the right TPJ is highly active when we think about other people’s intentions, thoughts and beliefs. In the new study, the researchers disrupted activity in the right TPJ by inducing a current in the brain using a magnetic field applied to the scalp. They found that the subjects’ ability to make moral judgments that require an understanding of other people’s intentions – for example, a failed murder attempt – was impaired.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offers “striking evidence” that the right TPJ, located at the brain’s surface above and behind the right ear, is critical for making moral judgments, says MIT’s Liane Young, lead author of the paper.
“You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior,” Young says. “To be able to apply [a magnetic field] to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.”
Young’s research used a non-invasive technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to selectively interfere with brain activity in the right TPJ. A magnetic field applied to a small area of the skull creates weak electric currents that impede nearby brain cells’ ability to fire normally, but the effect is only temporary.
In a second experiment, TMS was applied in 500-milisecond bursts at the moment when the subject was asked to make a moral judgment. For example, subjects were asked to judge how permissible it is for someone to let his girlfriend walk across a bridge he knows to be unsafe, even if she ends up making it across safely. In such cases, a judgment based solely on the outcome would hold the perpetrator morally blameless, even though it appears he intended to do harm.
In both experiments, the researchers found that when the right TPJ was disrupted, subjects were more likely to judge failed attempts to harm as morally permissible. Therefore, the researchers believe that TMS interfered with subjects’ ability to interpret others’ intentions, forcing them to rely more on outcome information to make their judgments.
Young is now planning research into the role of the right TPJ in judgments of people who are morally lucky or unlucky. For example, a drunk driver who hits and kills a pedestrian is unlucky, compared to an equally drunk driver who makes it home safely, but the unlucky homicidal driver tends to be judged more morally blameworthy.