With the help of neural science, researchers are coming closer to understanding the origins of bad behavior.


Scientists Crack Recipe for Social Delinquents


With the help of neural science, researchers are coming closer to understanding the origins of bad behavior.

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The Perennial Feud

From the first time Spock and McCoy verbally sparred over a tense moral dilemma, to the animated feuds launched from the shoulders of our favorite cartoon characters, we've all felt the conflict. Now, scientists at Harvard and Boston College are heating things up with provocative new research regarding our faculties of deliberation.

Harvard brain scientist Joshua Buckholtz is trying to understand bad behavior - the kind that bears consequences which should serve as sufficient deterrent. His investigation began from a simple question: "In what world [is]... a minor infraction worth...terrible food and barbed wire...?" he wondered. Now, after years of study, Buckholtz believes he's closer to an answer - essentially, a short-circuit in the brain which disrupts analytic thought. Emotions out-shout reasoning, and in some people the effect is amplified, perhaps due to the structure of their grey matter.

"In an impulsive person’s brain," Buckholtz reports, "attention just gets so narrowly focused on an immediate reward that, in effect, the future disappears." Buckholtz contends that if you asked a criminal to predict the outcome of an illicit act, they are neither clueless nor apathetic to the appropriate punishment. "It’s not that these people who commit crimes are dumb," he continues, "but [that] in the moment, that information about costs and consequences can’t get into their decision- making.”

Buckholtz feels that we now have a better grasp of the components responsible for delinquent behavior. "If we wanted to build antisocial offenders,” he says, “brain science knows some of the recipe.” They are powerfully reward-oriented, he explains, with a strong preference for instant gratification – an emotional indulgence which eschews long-term benefit. In addition, susceptible individuals possess “… an inability to maintain representations of consequences and costs... [a compromised] empathic response... [and limited] ability to regulate their emotions...”

Emotions and objectivity, the reasoning goes, really are on opposite ends of a spectrum. Not only that, but researchers are now engaged in a series of experiments designed to prove that moral judgment can be manipulated using drugs or low electric stimulation to impair the decision-making process. Minor changes to the amygdala or the prefrontal cortex, for example, can impede our ability to recognize intentions, or magnify minor infractions out of proportion.

The researchers believe the findings may benefit sufferers of cognitive impairment, as well as anyone who ever grappled with questions of right and wrong. As Harvard psychology professor Joshua D. Greene explains it, to sacrifice one to save many is objectively acceptable. But to assign a quantifiable value to any human life is emotionally objectionable. The right answer is elusive, and varies with the person and context. This is why our reflex behavior gets out of line with our empirical analysis. "If understanding that these are mechanical failures, as opposed to a deep failure of your soul, helps people be more understanding and constructive,” he says, “then that’s good.”

Paging Jimminy Cricket

But while scientists are brewing the perfect delinquent, they haven’t found an isolated circuit for moral arbitration. At The Morality Lab at Boston College, scientists like Liane Young have been looking for a moral compass in the brain - a conscience organ, so to speak. But so far, there's no single region that tackles the issues and nudges us one way or the other, pumping out a ticker tape of moral arbitration. “People tend to think of moral judgments as very central to their character,” she says. “So showing people that their judgments and their perceptions are flexible when it comes to morality — it’s pretty striking.”

So while it may be tempting to suppose that some are cursed with an inborn inclination to evil, there's no evidence yet for an "evil" gene. "Our folk concepts of good and evil are much more complicated, and multi-faceted, and riven with uncertainty than we ever thought possible before," says Buckholtz. “When we do brain studies of moral decision-making, what we are led into is an understanding that there are many different paths to antisocial behavior.”

So the next time you want to beat your boss over the head with your wrist rest, remember the future. If you can keep an image of tomorrow in mind as a ward against the seductive power of catharsis today, you may be alright.

Source: Wbur's Common Health