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Special Feature: The (Mostly) Moral Brain

I have become increasingly interested in how people respond to moral dilemmas and what this reveals about the brain. In everyday life, I notice that some people can move into complete irrationality and the most torturous logic in order to avoid an inner tension that moral dilemmas can induce. In training and lecturers it has been fascinating to present some classic moral dilemmas like the Runaway Trolley, some of Johnathan Haidt's moral riddles and sociopathy tests among others to illustrate key issues in psychology. Responses to these dilemmas reveals the reverse engineering in how the brain functions on many levels and it is also a lot of fun.

I am currently designing a course for working with "stuck" or "treatment resistant" clients for want of a better name. When clients get stuck it tends to elicit greater efforts in a practitioner to solve the dilemma for them through persuasion or problem solving. This often deepens a client's sense of stuckness. So, as part of the training, I thought I would design a deck of cards consisting of a wide range of moral dilemmas which are impossible to answer on the behalf of someone else. Participants take one at random and this is used to help practitioners support 'stuck clients' towards resolution. As such, it made me think that the research on moral dilemmas may be worth sharing as it offers fascinating insights into how our brains process information.

The first study looks at recent research that has identified the area of the brain that processes moral dilemmas. Whilst we try to reason through the discomfort of a moral dilemma, research on the brain shows that we are using deeper more emotional parts of the brain to resolve the conflict (click here).

More recently, researchers found that the brain's inferior frontal cortex (circled in the picture above) is more active in people who are more averse to harming others when facing moral dilemmas involving pain. The mirror neurons, that guide empathy, are a key driver of our overall response to dilemmas which might inflict harm on others. To read the research click here.

One criticism of moral dilemmas and what they teach us about the brain is that they are paper exercises that are processed hypothetically. In real life, when the stakes are high, people would respond to the dilemma differently. So what happens when people are asked paper dilemmas, and then put into a virtual reality situation that re-creates the lived experience much more closely? Click here to read study.

Another criticism of moral dilemmas is that they are prone to bias. Whilst I am not sure that this study eliminates emotion from peoples responses to dilemmas, it does give insight into how small differences in language can alter the responses people give to moral dilemmas. For example, a new killer disease is on the lose and will kill 10% of the population. However, there is an expensive vaccine that would stop 90% of the population contracting the virus and they will all live. Which feels the better option? To read the research, click here.

I always defend the need for our society to show greater appreciation for people with sociopathic tendency. They are happy to do the jobs most of us simply could not conscience. If a group of people face a set of life threatening choices, it would be really useful to have someone who scores highly on sociopathetic tendencies. Find out why here. In contrast, in the same life-threatening situation, you would be very wise to completely ignore any politicians. I am not saying that the person with sociopathic tendency should sacrifice them for the greater good but it is an option. To find out why, click here.

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