Emotions, Moral Choice Linked in Study Watching Brain Activity

Brain activity in a region tied to human emotion may help prompt people to be fair rather than efficient in handing out rewards and burdens, say researchers aiming to understand the inspiration behind moral actions, Bloomberg reported.

U.S. scientists used imaging technology to measure the brain activity of 26 adults asked to make decisions about how to allocate meals to orphans. The researchers found that the stronger the activity was in the insula, a part of the brain associated with emotions, the more likely participants were to fairly spread the meals among the children.

Philosophers and economists have long debated why people make moral decisions. So-called moral sentimentalists, such as Adam Smith, argue that the distribution of goods is often rooted in empathy. Others, such as Plato, emphasize reason. This study, reported in the journal Science, suggests that emotion outweighs reason when fairness is at issue, said Michael Gill, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Arizona.

``There seems, at least initially, to be pretty good reason to think that when we make moral judgments, it's based on our emotions,'' said Gill, who was not associated with the study, in a telephone interview yesterday. ``That seems to suggest the sentimentalists are right.''

The trial was led by Steven Quartz of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Trial participants were told that hungry children in an orphanage would receive 24 meals. Researchers then said some meals would have to be cut from the program.

Participants could choose to take 15 meals from one child, or 13 meals from one child and 5 from another. The subjects had their brains scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging, while they weighed choosing the efficient option, which removed 15 meals from one child, or the more equitable, which removed a total of 18 meals from two children.

The subjects mostly chose the equitable option, with only 3 or 4 choosing efficiency, said Quartz. Those who chose the equitable option always displayed more activity in the insula.

``What this suggests is that when you see unfairness, it really bothers you, it makes you feel negative about it, and that reaction pushes you away from unfairness,'' said Quartz, an associate professor in the division of humanities and social sciences, in a telephone interview. ``Emotions seem to keep us in check, and some people don't get this response as strongly.''

Donations were actually made by the researchers, because Quartz and his team wanted to make sure people felt morally compelled by the problem. Subjects donated $87 on average, for a total of $2,279. It's not clear that people behave the same way in hypothetical situations and in life, so the researchers used real money in order to get real choices, Quartz said.

Morality is important for people's motivation, and often inspires action, said Gill. One of 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume's more important ethical arguments on the subject says that morality influences conduct, and in order to act, people need motives, which often stem from sentiment, Gill said.

The degree to which people feel a social program ought to be fair could be rooted in this response, Quartz said. A future avenue of research could explore the degree to which insula response influences political motivation, he said.

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