The brain’s role in moral behaviour

January 5, 2021 8:15 pm

Do you ever wonder why someone does something immoral in your eyes and does not even try to hide it?  Many people think that moral behaviour is the result of knowing the ‘right thing versus the wrong thing’ or self-discipline.  It turns out to be a bit more complicated and a lot more interesting.

Research shows that people are influenced by the social norms of their ‘In-group‘.  And it is not so much that people simply ‘conform’ to the groups’ expectations, but they perceive, value and remember things in accordance with how members of their ‘in-group’ behave. Neuro-scientific studies including fMRI show that the parts of the brain that are most active when people find themselves ‘out of step’ with their In-group are related to attention and perception, not the part of the brain related to moral reasoning or other types of higher-level judgements.  Perception (what we see, hear, feel etc.)  is how we know what is real in the world, e.g. I see and touch a chair near me, and I know it is real, and I can sit in it safely. What we perceive as real and true is influenced at the neural level by the people we see as peers.

Another line of research has demonstrated that once people have formed a view about someone’s trustworthiness, they allocate less brain activity to subsequently evaluating and judging that person’ behaviour for its actual ‘moral merits’.  In other words, we ‘don’t look too closely’ when a member of our In-group behaves in ways that we might otherwise consider immoral or inappropriate.

Finally, the research has shown that not only are we biased in favour of In-group members – judging their behaviour as more moral compared to Out-group members – but we also tend to resist moral feedback/input from Out-group members.

This finding is significant to keep in mind when we frame health-related behaviours in a moral context, e.g. saying it is immoral for people not to wear a mask, or gather in large groups.  Because if the people who are creating the rules/guidelines are considered Out-group (Authorities, elites – not my peers/friends), their suggestions/mandates may be rejected. This rejection can extend to not only ignoring the mandate but actively working against it.

This research helps us understand why some people act against their own best interests by endangering others and themselves by refusing to wear masks or comply with other public health request/regulations.

It is tricky to get across what seems like a fact/science-based requirement in an environment where many messages are framed and interpreted in a moral context.

Behavioural and neuroscientists recommend finding ways to create a sense of shared identity and build trust between groups and enlist the aid of trusted In-group members to convey the messages.  This research also has important implications for minimizing or eliminating polarizing comments (including social media) that frame behaviour in a moral context. The science suggests it simply will not work and is likely to backfire by encouraging people to resist actively.

Photo credit: Roksana Aln on Unsplash

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