Sacred values programmed into brain

Nieuws | de redactie
2 februari 2012 | Politics, religion, beliefs. Most discussions get heated once they touch upon one of these issues. But why? A recent study led by American researcher Gregory Berns shows that certain sacred values are not put to question because our brain processes them without considering rewards and utility.

Virtue ethics suggest that there are two ways of makingdecisions, either by evaluating the pros and cons in a utilitarianfashion or by following a right-or-wrong deontological approach. Anexperiment by Gregory Berns and his teamindicates that being confronted with sacred values triggers aresponse in certain parts of our brain without an evaluation ofrewards and consequences.

During the experiment explained below, the researchers recordedbrain activity while presenting participants with statements abouttheir values. Sacred values in particular led to the activation oftwo brain areas that evaluate rights and wrongs (lefttemporoparietal junction) and semantic rule retrieval (leftventrolateral prefrontal cortex), while areas associated withreward and utility were inactive.

Mislead public policy

Berns criticized that “most public policy is based on offeringpeople incentives and disincentives. Our findings indicate thatit’s unreasonable to think that a policy based oncosts-and-benefits analysis will influence people’s behavior whenit comes to their sacred personal values, because they areprocessed in an entirely different brain system thanincentives.”

“As culture changes, it affects our brains, and as our brainschange, that affects our culture. You can’t separate the two,”Berns stated. “We now have the means to start understanding thisrelationship, and that’s putting the relatively new field ofcultural neuroscience onto the global stage.”

In a blog post, Andrew Watt from Melbourne Universityreviewed the experiment conducted by Berns explaining how theirfindings came about.

The experiment

“Sacred values are those fundamental values and beliefs whichguide the decisions you make throughout your life. From yournational identity to your political ideology, your religiouspersuasion, and maybe even your sports team of choice these valuesare defined by the fact that you wouldn’t change them for all thegold in the world. Or at least not for $100. And that’s preciselywhat participants in a recent study, investigating the neuralnetworks of all that is sacrosanct, were asked to do.”

“Researchers at Emory University used fMRI to observe the brainsof 32 participants as they were shown statements ranging from themundane (“You are a cat person”) to those that were thought to tapinto participant’s sacred values (“You believe in god”). Each ofthe 62 statements had an opposing pair (“You are a dog person” and”You don’t believe in god”) and participants were told to selectthe statements which best reflected their views.”

“After they had made their selections the participants weregiven the opportunity to auction off their personal statements foran actual monetary reward, earning as much as $100 a statementproviding they would sign a document disavowing their previouschoices. Of course they were also given the option to not auctionoff their beliefs at all if they were deemed too valuable to sell,at least not for such a low value.”

“If a person refused to take money to change a statement, thenwe considered that value to be personally sacred to them. But ifthey took money, then we considered that they had low integrity forthat statement and that it wasn’t sacred.” Gregory Bernscommented.

“When Berns and co compared the fMRI results with the statementsbeing viewed they found something very interesting. The statementstapping into the participant’s sacred values resulted insignificantly greater activation of the neural systems within theleft temporoparietal junction and the left ventrolateral prefrontalcortex, and statements which the participants refused to opposeresulted in activation of the amygdala.”

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