Busted Halo

In Virtue/Vice, Dr. Christine B. Whelan blogs about news, books, scientific and psychological research and her general musings about virtue and vice in our everyday lives.


Click this banner to see the entire section.

September 14th, 2010

Magnetic Morality


magnetic-morality-flashA team of neuroscientists claim that it’s possible to alter a subject’s moral judgments using a large magnet to temporarily disrupt normal brain activity, according to new findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers, led by Rebecca Saxe, MIT assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and lead author on this paper, Liane Young, a postdoctoral associate, find that subjects make different decisions about whether a person’s behavior hypothetical scenario is permissible or forbidden after exposure to this magnetic field.

Says Dr. Young:

“It’s one thing to ‘know’ that we’ll find morality in the brain … It’s another to ‘knock out’ that brain area and change people’s moral judgments.”

Here’s how it worked, according to LiveScience:

When people hear news of a crime like a shooting, they likely need more information before they can judge the offender’s actions as right or wrong – was the crime accidental or intentional? If it was an accident or if the shooter was defending him or herself, people are likely to see the act as much more morally acceptable than if it was deliberate and unwarranted.

The study results show that stimulating a specific brain region interfered with the participants’ ability to consider this mental state information when assessing hypothetical situations dealing with morality.

For instance, participants who received this brain stimulation were more likely to judge as morally acceptable scenarios involving attempted harms – where a person intends, but fails to carry out a crime, like an attempted poisoning.

There are plenty of caveats about this finding:

The difference between pre and post-zapped judgments averaged out to about a 15 percent change. Not much, said Young, “but it’s still striking to see such a change in such high level behavior as moral decision-making.”

And we’re in the realm of correlation, not causation: A change in the participants moral decisions seem to be linked to the magnetic fields, but there’s no definitive causal pattern.

Still, this is potentially disturbing. Are our morals just a matter of snap decision-making that can be tricked by forcefields? (Think: “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”) Did the girls from “Pretty Wild” just spend too much time playing with New Age magnets as kids?

I’ll keep my eye on this story — I have a feeling that some moral philosophers may take issue with these findings in a way that’s way above my pay-grade — and I’ll report back soon with more thoughts.

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
See more articles by (214).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • V

    %15 does NOT seem like a very big number.
    If in analysis, you break things down still further, it’s possible that one could make that number still smaller. (Read: “Lies, D*mn Lies, and Statistics” if you don’t believe me) Once you break down that number to a specific point, you wind up running into what they call standard error. Which yes, is smaller than 15 percent, but I don’t know how many levels of derivation they had to go before they cam up with that.

    Frankly, I think this will be shot down in some way before long.

    So here are some questions: Did they use college students? How did they perform this test? Was it double-blind, etc?
    How attractive was the administrator of the test? Who was reminded of their mother or father by the test administrators?

    I ask about college students because beliefs and morals tend to be pretty fluid at that point anyway, at least for most people in this day and age. Also, for most people, one’s moral judgments can depend on mood, environment, who happens to be watching, and so on. There are too many variables to really make these kinds of assessments. This is why psychology is still largely voodoo, (ie. sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and we can’t explain why) except what they can key to physical phenomenon, like schizophrenia or other neurological disorders. YOu can try to make a study of the human person in a lab seem scientific, but when it comes to states of mind and so on… there’s so much you can’t observe, there is so much you can’t quantify, there is so much you can’t take into consideration for each individual to actually produce a result that stands up to later scrutiny.

    It’s so much easier to do this with animals because they, as far as we know, don’t cognate about ideas the way we do.
    It’s mostly instinct and cause and effect.

    With humans… they have whole worlds floating around in their head, and let’s not forget that many things for most people depend on who’s watching… and how.

  • Tam√°s N√©meth

    BTW, sorry for my comment was a little offtopic. I know that for spiritual seekers, the essence of this article could be summed up like this:

    -Our brain (as part of our body) and magnetics are purely material.
    -We suppose that we have an immaterial/transcendent(?) soul.
    -Morality is related to our soul not to material objects like the brain.
    -Now how can a material impact affect out eternal soul? Do we have such a soul anyway?!

    Well, my impression is that – from the viewing point of the material world – our soul may be brought to existence during the process our body evolves. Somewhat contrary to this I consider this soul eternal in the transcendent world. My “theory” might solve the conflict between the free will of our soul and the total determinism of the material world.

    I don’t know. No one knows of course. Maybe we’ll see it after our death.

    I hope Benedict XVI won’t excommunicate me ;)

  • Tam√°s N√©meth

    If drugs (like alcohol) can affect our moral judgement and other high level brain functions, why shouldn’t magnetic fields do so? I don’t think it’s so different from that. Both is about physical-chemical impact.

  • Christine

    Hi MaryAnn,
    While this is a good question, I think the study was using HUGE magnets right on the brain. Everything in moderation, so I doubt that trace exposure to other magnetic sources makes a difference, but follow the links and you can download the original study!

    Christine Whelan

  • maryann

    We live in a world filled with electro-magnetic fields disguised as flagpoles, pinetrees and microwave ovens. Do these contribute to a decline in morality? I am interested in getting further info. Thanks Christine.

powered by the Paulists