The Neuroscience of Morality

As any good psychologist knows, there’s no abstract concept that is above a little analysis. And all of our most ‘prized’ human traits, when subjected to said analysis, can almost always be broken down into some basic neuroscience.

Let’s take morality as an example. This is something we think makes us human, something we might think is above scrutiny even. In fact though, we can explain our feelings and our ideas regarding morality fairly basically by just looking at the science behind it…

Where Is Morality?

According to researchers, our morality can be physically located within the brain and is actually found in the right hemisphere towards the surface. This has been determined by using transcranial magnetic stimulation. Here magnetic impulses are used either to stimulate or to block blood flow to specific parts of the brain. And by specifically tampering with the blood flow to the specific area of the brain in the right hemisphere, they can actually alter our ability to decide what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ (1).

The Psychology Reason for Morality

The specific area of the brain that researchers decided to tamper with in the aforementioned study was one called the ‘right temporoparietal junction’. This is the part of the brain that we also use in working out the beliefs and feelings of other people.

The reason that this area is so important, is that morality tends to be judged on motive and not on result. So for instance, if you were to push someone down the stairs on purpose and they were okay, that would still be a bad thing to do. Push someone down the stairs by accident though and even if they are seriously injured, you are still judged as being less immoral. Morality is also judged using our ability to empathize and to feel for other people. In other words, we know that it’s bad to purposefully push people down stairs because it makes them feel bad and using ‘mirror neurons’ in our brain we are able to actually experience what that might be like.

This provides support for the idea of morality being very much a social utility. Like language, it may be that our sense of right and wrong is what enables us to socialize with other members of our own species. In the wild it would have enabled groups of early humans to survive and thrive rather than constantly undermining one another leading to mutually assured destruction. If it wasn’t for our sense of morality, there would be nothing stopping us from wiping each other off the face of the earth. Thus it has a highly valuable survival advantage. Meanwhile, those with mental conditions affecting their ability to empathize – like psychopathy – are more likely to engage in behaviors that are damaging or destructive to others.

It is thought that we all have an innate ability to tell right from wrong using this area of the brain that allows us to understand others. Likewise, though, we will then put our ideas regarding morality through a kind of ‘lens’ based on our own understanding. Our beliefs regarding the world, religion, politics and more will help us to interpret the feelings that guide us towards what we will ultimately decide is the ‘moral’ action.

Thus someone with a perfectly functioning sense of empathy could still end up coming to conclusions that you are immoral – because they may have had different experiences or have been raised in a different culture. It’s also possible to suppress our feelings of empathy for others through a range of different processes. For instance in a war we will often psychologically ‘dehumanize’ the enemy such that we feel less empathy towards them in combat.

The Time of Day That You Are Most Likely to Be Evil

All this shows us just how fragile a concept of morality really is and how susceptible we all are to occasional breaches of our moral code. All it takes is a little faulty wiring or a bang to the head and we can lose our ability to understand the difference between right and wrong. Or alternatively it just needs someone to have a slightly warped view of the world.

Oooor you might just be tired. That’s right – as you get tireder you become more likely to ignore what you think is the ‘right thing to do’ or just to fail to come to an adequate decision in the first place. In the evening you will feel more tired and as a result your morality will be less ‘efficient’ and you might be more inclined to ignore it or not to give it the mental energy it requires. In one study it was found that students sitting a test were more likely to cheat if the test was in the afternoon (2). This phenomenon is called ‘morning morality’ and it has a range of other implications as well – for instance it means that simply getting a better night’s sleep could make you a better person.

So there you have it. Morality is highly complex and is the result of various factors working together. But nevertheless it is still just a function and a property of your brain and your psychology just like the rest of your personality.

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