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Mind

#80: Magnets Can Change Your Moral Values

By Danielle EganDecember 16, 2010 6:00 AM

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Think you have clear standards of right and wrong written into your brain? Think again. In April neuroscientist Liane Young and her colleagues at MIT and Harvard University reported that they had altered people’s moral judgments using transcranial magnetic stimulation, a procedure that briefly disrupts neural processing with a magnetic field induced by electric current.

Young asked each of 20 volunteers to judge 24 scenarios that involved morally questionable behavior. (One example: Grace slips her friend what she thinks is poison but is actually sugar. The friend is unaffected. How immoral is Grace’s action?) Then she stimulated the subjects’ brains at an area near the right ear called the temporoparietal junction, a region theorized to play a role in our ability to figure out others’ intentions, and repeated the tests.

Before and after, the subjects rated the scenarios on a seven-point scale, ranging from morally forbidden to morally permissible. After stimulation, her subjects were consistently more likely to rank the actions of the characters as being closer to permissible; their answers averaged one step higher on the scale. Young’s interpretation is that when subjects were zapped, they were more likely to focus on the outcome (nobody died) than on the intent (Grace tried to poison her friend).

Manipulating morality with a magnet may sound diabolical, but Young has no interest in mind control. Her goal, she explains, is to learn more about why intentions matter to us when we make moral judgments.

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