Beware Neuro-flapdoodle!

Jean Decety Brain Scan

Jann Ingmire has written an interesting article for The University of Chicago News. In it she reflects on recent research which seems to suggest that those who are more sensitive to issues around justice or inequality are more likely to be applying reason rather than emotion.

“People who care about justice are swayed more by reason than emotion, according to new brain scan research from the Department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.” she claims.

People with high “justice sensitivity” where studied using fRMI scanners in order to study their thought processes.

“We were interested to examine how individual differences about justice and fairness are represented in the brain to better understand the contribution of emotion and cognition in moral judgment,” explained lead author Jean Decety.

Unexpectedly the subjects that showed the most sensitivity when exposed to video footage of unjust behaviours were using parts of their brain usually associated with higher-order cognition, and not those usually involved with processing emotions.

“Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven. Rather, they are cognitively driven.” Decety says. This marks a departure from the myth that emotional indignation is irrational and usually driven by ‘gut feeling’, an innate sense of what is right and what is wrong. But of course such a ‘myth’ has itself, until now, been based on intuition. We kind of thought that righteous indignation was fuelled just by emotion – right? People that get fired up by human rights issues often sentimentalise the situation – yes? Am I alone in thinking that the value of this research  says more about our previously held misconceptions and biases, than it does about the bright new domain of neuroscience.

Read the full article – Brain scans link concern for justice with reason, not emotion

See more here


Molly Crockett’s TED talk offers us a great ‘health warning’ when we try to evaluate the significance of the research described above. In it she at first describes a different application. She shows how a controlled regulation of the chemical serotonin in subjects led to an identifiable change in behaviours and attitudes. She says “We manipulated people’s serotonin levels by giving them this really disgusting-tasting artificial lemon-flavored drink that works by taking away the raw ingredient for serotonin in the brain. This is the amino acid tryptophan. So what we found was, when tryptophan was low, people were more likely to take revenge when they’re treated unfairly.”

So you would think that she is signed up to the similar ideas proffered in the first piece of research – right? The fact is the whole talk warns of the mythology, assumptions and generalisations that are occurring around the relatively new subject of neuroscience and its attendant technology

Her main counterargument to the neuroscience “headlines” is that they are usually based on the falacious assumption that any one part of the brain has only one (or a few) processing functions. Please watch the talk it is fascinating. She also points out the whole range of advertising campaigns (see below) that seek to piggyback the current fascination we all have on the outcomes of fRMI scans.


Key questions ….

  • How do we guard against the fraudulent and hasty generalisations that the press (and even reputable scientific papers) generate when communicating scientific research?
  • How do we balance enthusiasm with reservation or skepticism when new technology excites us with its potential?
  • Is the ongoing discussion around emotion vs reason a false dilemma? Is it really binary?

This previous post on “Conscience or cold hearted logic?” is relevant here.

Wow! Even the Daily Mail discusses Jean Decety’s research


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