Researchers at MIT and Harvard are scrambling morals in the name of science.
Using a powerful magnetic field, scientists from MIT, Harvard University and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center are able to scramble the moral center of the brain, making it more difficult for people to separate innocent intentions from harmful outcomes.
The research could have big implications for not only neuroscientists, but also for judges and juries.
“It’s one thing to ‘know’ that we’ll find morality in the brain,” said Liane Young, a scientist at MIT and co-author of the article. “It’s another to ‘knock out’ that brain area and change people’s moral judgments.”
Researchers had their subjects read stories about morally objectionable characters. After reading the stories, they were asked what they thought about the characters decisions.
One typical story was about a boyfriend who leads his girlfriend across a bridge. In some versions, the boyfriend harmlessly walked his girlfriend across the bridge with no ill effect.
In other cases, the boyfriend intentionally led the girlfriend along so she would break her ankle.
The subjects used a seven point scale — one being forbidden and seven completely permissible — to record whether they through the situation was morally acceptable or not.
When the magnetic field was turned on, the subjects found it harder to interpret the boyfriend’s intent. Without being able to see that, they could only focus on the outcome of the story. So the only thing that affected their judgment was the outcome.
The wave affected only about 15 percent of change in moral judgments, but researchers said the fact that such a high-level function can even be changed with magnets is fascinating.
Lawyers said the research could have implications on brain science and law as well.
“This study, and other recent studies like it, are enabling us to peer into the very brain activity that underlies and enables legal judgments,” said Owen Jones, a professor of law and biology at Vanderbilt University. “Understanding how legal decisions actually work is a potentially important step toward helping decisions be as fair, just and effective as they can be.”
In a conspiracy case, for example, one person might get a lesser sentence because once a crime was committed, they felt remorse. If they couldn’t understand the moral implications or intent before their crime, the crime would go from premeditated to a lesser charge.