Thursday, November 21, 2013

The biology of sacred values.

Frank Rose does a nice piece in the NYTimes, pointing to the work of Gregory Berns and others, on brain correlates of why financial incentives are irrelevant when “sacred values” are at stake. (As in the failure of financial incentives offered by the West in getting Iran to give up its “right” to enrich uranium for “peaceful” uses.) Attempts to offer money to get people to alter strongly held beliefs - with issues like gun control, abortion, Israeli or Palestinian rights to the West Bank of the Jordan - result in moral outrage, feelings of contamination, and a need for moral cleansing. Work by Berns and others suggests we have radically different ways of processing ordinary and sacred beliefs. Berns…
...took M.R.I. images of participants’ brains as he asked them to consider changing their personal beliefs in exchange for money. Would they trade their preference for dogs over cats? What about their belief in God? Would they be willing to kill an innocent person?
When participants were questioned about issues of the dog-or-cat variety, their brain scans showed activity in the parietal cortex — a region that’s thought to be involved in making cost-benefit calculations. But when asked about issues on which they declined to make a trade, entirely different parts of the brain were activated — systems that are associated with telling right from wrong and with storing and retrieving rules. The result, Professor Berns observes, could be a new way to gauge sacred values “that is not solely dependent on self-report.”
Are we going to start running international negotiators through an M.R.I. machine to see where they’re processing the issues? [and determine whether or not someone is faking it when they claim sacred values] Highly unlikely. But results like Professor Berns’s might at least disprove the idea, still held by many, that every belief has its price. Given the intensely negative emotions that financial incentives can trigger, this might be a good lesson to learn.
Here is the abstract from the Berns et al work "The price of your soul: neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values" to which the above is referring. It gives a bit more detail on the brain correlates of sacred values:
Sacred values, such as those associated with religious or ethnic identity, underlie many important individual and group decisions in life, and individuals typically resist attempts to trade off their sacred values in exchange for material benefits. Deontological theory suggests that sacred values are processed based on rights and wrongs irrespective of outcomes, while utilitarian theory suggests that they are processed based on costs and benefits of potential outcomes, but which mode of processing an individual naturally uses is unknown. The study of decisions over sacred values is difficult because outcomes cannot typically be realized in a laboratory, and hence little is known about the neural representation and processing of sacred values. We used an experimental paradigm that used integrity as a proxy for sacredness and which paid real money to induce individuals to sell their personal values. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we found that values that people refused to sell (sacred values) were associated with increased activity in the left temporoparietal junction and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, regions previously associated with semantic rule retrieval. This suggests that sacred values affect behaviour through the retrieval and processing of deontic rules and not through a utilitarian evaluation of costs and benefits.

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