Moral Judgments and Behavior

Moral Judgments and Behavior
April 6, 2015 David Shanley, Psy.D.

I came across an intriguing article on cnn.com today reporting on research linking specific areas of the brain with moral judgments and behavior.  As a behaviorist I am biased to think that most, if not all, behavior is under environmental control, but this then leaves open the question of ‘why do some people not play by the same rules?’  Why is their behavior not responsive to the same environmental contingencies as everyone else’s (i.e. fear of punishment or not wanting to hurt others)?  Fortunately, neuropsychologists and neuroscientists are on the case and are investigating a possible link between a specific area of the brain and moral judgments.  In the lab, only cognitions were tested as they relate to certain brain activity; however, they are correlating the data with different groups of people based on previous criminal and “psychopathic” behavior.  Interestingly, they are finding areas of the brain related to emotional processing lighting up differently in the “psychopaths” versus “normal” group, even when both groups gave similar verbal responses to moral dilemmas.

If neural activity can be pinpointed relating to moral behavior, then the next step might be to develop medications or other ways of stimulating the brain to try to influence behavior in people who otherwise appear to be lacking appropriate moral emotional responses.

How far we as a society decide to go down this path is a delicate question that should be thought about carefully.  First off, who decides what is “appropriate moral behavior?”  How do we determine who needs treatment?   Should anyone be forced to get such treatment if they display high-risk behavior at a young age, in order to potentially prevent later anti-social, criminal or “immoral” behavior?

So far I am impressed by the research coming out and glad that we are getting closer to pinpointing links between specific brain areas and thoughts, feelings, and overt behavior.  While I believe in psychotherapy, it may only go so far for helping certain individuals with unique brain structures.  At the same time, other research is now coming out stating how effective cognitive-behavioral therapy can be for the treatment of Schizophrenia, which has long been conceptualized as a primarily biological, not psychological, condition.

These are fascinating times we live in, and it will be important to keep a close watch as the science progresses to be able to manipulate behavior at the neurological level.  For now, I spend my time helping people change the behaviors that they say they want to change, as that is what I am passionate about and the area where I think I can have the largest impact.  However, the advances in neuroscience will keep coming and I look forward to continuing the conversations about how to influence behavior at both the neurological and psychological levels, and the interplay between these two realms.

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