Saturday, 28 January 2012

Taking the sacred path to decision making

They say that when in polite company one should never discuss religion or politics. An old adage which is perhaps even more pertinent when you find yourself dining with boors. After all there are few topics of conversation with the innate ability to turn a soiree into a shouting match as those we hold sacred. Whether it be our views on life or what follows afterwards, there's just something about those consecrated concepts that doesn't allow any room for compromise. But what is about these fundamental beliefs that turn us into fundamentalists when they're challenged? Well as it would turn out the answer is all in our heads just, according to a recent study, in slightly different areas.

Trading the cow for some sacred beans

Sacred values are those fundamental values and beliefs which guide the decisions you make throughout your life. From your national identity to your political ideology, your religious persuasion, and maybe even your sports team of choice these values are defined by the fact that you wouldn't change them for all the gold in the world. Or at least not for $100. And that's precisely what participants in a recent study, investigating the neural networks of all that is sacrosanct, were asked to do. Researchers at Emory University used fMRI to observe the brains of 32 participants as they were shown statements ranging from the mundane ("You are a cat person") to those that were thought to tap into participant's sacred values ("You believe in god"). Each of the 62 statements had an opposing pair ("You are a dog person" and "You don't believe in god") and participants were told to select the statements which best reflected their views.

After they had made their selections the participants were given the opportunity to auction of their personal statements for an actual monetary reward, earning as much as $100 a statement providing they would sign a document disavowing their previous choices. Of course they were also given the option to not auction off their beliefs at all if they were deemed too valuable to sell, at least not for such a low value.

When Berns and co compared the fMRI results with the statements being viewed they found something very interesting. The statements tapping into the participant's sacred values resulted in significantly greater activation of the neural systems within the left temporoparietal junction and the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, and statements which the participants refused to oppose resulted in activation of the amygdala. Now I know what you're thinking. Aren't these the respective regions of the brain responsible for determining right vs wrong, semantic rule retrieval and emotional response? Yes they are, but to get a better idea of the significance of these results we should probably take a quick wander back through the laneways of virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics suggest that we all have two distinct paths by which we make our decisions: the deontological path and the utilitarian path. A deontological decision is one based on rights and wrongs with little or no empahsis placed on the pros and cons of the outcome. For example you may believe in god simply because you think it's the right thing to do. A utilitarian approach on the other hand would carefully weigh up the benefits of both choices before coming to their final decision, a decision which would be based on the greater benefit to the individual. So to continue the example whilst you think that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming you still believe in god because you don't really like not working Sunday's and there's no point risking being wrong and spending an eternity in hell. And that's more or less what the researchers found. Our decision making processes seem to take either a deontological pathway via the temporoparietal junction and the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex or a more utilitarian path via the inferior parietal lobules depending on whether they involve the activation of our sacred values.

Crossing the sacred divide

The results of this study provide the first neurobiological evidence that our failure to make trade-offs regarding our sacred values has a neural basis, not to mention the major implications it has regarding our understanding of the influences mediating cross-cultural human behaviour. However like any good study it is the questions raised rather than those answered which are of most interest. For example if the deontological pathway renders incentives moot what chance do we have of crossing the divide of political and religious opinion. And can values held sacred and processed deontologically ever be re-assessed in a utilitarian manner.

According to Bern "As culture changes, it affects our brains, and as our brains change, that affects our culture. You can't separate the two."
Whilst we don't have all the answers just yet, one thing is certainly clear; the era of cultural neuroscience is well on its way. In the meantime though when someone brings up politics at the dining table, it's probably easier to ask them what they know about virtue ethics, before you go ahead and tell them exactly what you're thinking.


  •  Berns, G., Bell, E., Capra, C., Prietula, M., Moore, S., Anderson, B., Ginges, J., & Atran, S. (2011). The Price of Your Soul: Neural Evidence for the Non-Utilitarian Representation of Sacred Values SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.1817982


This post was written by Andrew Watt for A Hippo on Campus.


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