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People who care about justice exhibit higher-order cognition associated with reason

Friday, April 18, 2014 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: justice, cognition, reason

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(NaturalNews) Individuals who are more concerned about justice are influenced more by reason than by emotion, according to a new brain scan study from the University of Chicago's Department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.

Researchers have discovered that some individuals tend to react more strongly than others to situations that invoke a sense of justice, such as seeing a person being treated unfairly or mercifully, the university said in a press release.

The study used brain scans to analyze the thought patterns and processes of people who experienced high "justice sensitivity."

Processing morality

"We were interested to examine how individual differences about justice and fairness are represented in the brain to better understand the contribution of emotion and cognition in moral judgment," explained lead author Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry.

Researchers used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain-scanning apparatus to study what happened in participants' brains as they judged videos depicting behavior that was good or bad, morally speaking.

For instance, participants viewed a person either putting money into the cup of a beggar or kicking the beggar's cup away. Study participants were asked to rate, on a scale, how much they would blame or praise the actor in the video. Participants were additionally asked to complete questionnaires which sought to determine cognitive and emotional empathy, as well as their sensitivity to justice.

Per the university press release:

As expected, study participants who scored high on the justice sensitivity questionnaire assigned significantly more blame when they were evaluating scenes of harm, Decety said. They also registered more praise for scenes showing a person helping another individual.

However, the brain-imaging study also contained some surprises, researchers noted. During the behavior-evaluation stage of the research, people with high justice sensitivity displayed more activity than average participants in parts of the brain that are associated with higher-order cognition. Areas of the brain that are commonly linked with emotional processing were not affected, however.

That left a clear conclusion, Decety said.

"Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven. Rather, they are cognitively driven," she noted.

First-of-its-kind study

The professor went on to note that one implication of the results is that the search for justice and the moral missions of human rights organizations, as well as others, do not come primarily from sentimental motivations, as they are most often portrayed. Instead, that drive could have more to do with sophisticated analysis and mental calculation, researchers opined.

Decety added that analyzing good actions produced relatively high activity in the part of the brain that is involved in decision-making, motivation and rewards -- a finding that suggests, perhaps, that individuals may make judgments about behavior premised on how they process the reward value of good actions compared to those deemed bad.

"Our results provide some of the first evidence for the role of justice sensitivity in enhancing neural processing of moral information in specific components of the brain network involved in moral judgment," Decety said.

U of Chicago psychology doctoral student Keith Yoder is a co-author on the paper, which was published in the March 19 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.





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