New research from the University of Chicago illustrates that individuals can tell very quickly whether a harmful action they witness is intentional or accidental.
"The first step (in moral computations) is that we have to know whether an action we witnessed was intentional or accidental. The punishment is worse if it was intentional" in terms of legal retribution, such as jail time or a fine, said Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago and lead author of the paper titled "The speed of morality: a high-density electrical neuroimaging study." It was published online ahead of print on Sept. 5 in the Journal of Neurophysiology.
In the study, researchers monitored the brain activity of 10 adults who were watching videos of people who were being harmed intentionally, including being hit by a baseball bat, or accidentally, such as being struck by a golf club. The equipment collecting the brain activity recorded which regions of the brain responded to the actions in the videos, and the order in which these areas were activated.
Researchers used high-density, event-related potentials technology to identify communication patterns between different regions in the brain.
Decety said that his team is pleased with the results. "This is what we expected, in a way," he said. "The study shows that, when you see an action, it takes more time to process an accidental action."
The human default is a tendency to see actions as intentional. "It's better for you to have this bias than to make a mistake," Decety said.
It helps you to make decisions that will help you to survive in nature, he said.
Within 60 milliseconds after witnessing an action, the brain has assessed whether the action was intentional or accidental. The ability to detect this so quickly is "very, very old," Decety said.
"You need to know this in order to survive. If a predator comes after you, you need to be able to process this visual information very quickly," he said.
When a person witnesses a harmful action, the first part of the brain activated is the right posterior superior temporal sulcus, in the back of the brain. Then the amygdala in the front part of the temporal lobe is activated. This region is frequently connected to emotion.
Activity in these areas is then followed by a response in the ventromedial prefontal cortex, a region of the brain related to the moral aspect of decision-making. However, neither of these last two areas responds to accidental harm.
"If harm is intentional, then there is a very strong emotional reaction, which is not present if it is accidental," Decety said.
In terms of his future research, Decety would like to study how these types of processes develop in young children or babies. The study was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the National Science Foundation.
Liane Young, assistant professor of psychology at Boston College, called the approach to moral neuroscience "neat and novel."
"(They) examine the speed with which information gets processed for intuitive moral judgments," Young said. "Intent information is critical for moral judgment. Intent makes the difference between murder and manslaughter, for example. Until now, it hasn't been known whether intentions are integrated in an automatic or controlled fashion. Young children, for example, find it difficult to integrate intentions, as do high-functioning individuals with autism, judging accidental harms as though they were done on purpose.
"These findings suggest that for neurotypical adults, intent is among the first inputs to morality. So, for most of us, it seems, distinguishing between murder and manslaughter doesn't require a second thought."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun