President Trump, take note: new research has found that screwing over your peers for a payday isn’t nearly as satisfying as coming by your riches honestly.
“When we make decisions, a network of brain regions calculates how valuable our options are,” said lead author Dr. Molly Crockett.
“Ill-gotten gains evoke weaker responses in this network, which may explain why most people would rather not profit from harming others. Our results suggest the money just isn’t as appealing.”
The new study – conducted by researchers from University College London and published in the journal Nature Neuroscience – sought to determine how our morals impact our perception of profit on a neural level.
Researchers used an fMRI brain scanner while study participants played a game in which they could deliver electric shocks to themselves or their fellow players and receive a monetary reward. Players who were given the role of "decider" could chose between varying amounts of money for different numbers of electric shocks, as well as whether to administer a shock to themselves or their fellow players. No matter the circumstances, the decider always got the cash reward and the participants deemed "receivers" got nothing.
Researchers tracked the deciders’ brain activity and found that a neural network called the striatum – which has been shown to play a critical role in value judgments – pulsed with activity. When the deciders were choosing between more money or fewer zaps, the levels of brain activity in the striatum signalled how beneficial they believed each option to be. For those that behaved virtuously, the network responded less to money earned from harming others with a shock, compared to money earned from shocking themselves.
Another part of the brain associated with moral judgments – the lateral prefrontal cortex – also experienced a spike in activity in trials where administering pain yielded a minimal profit.
What this seems to indicate is that the decider was assessing guilt and blame. In other words, humans naturally register guilt when making choices they know might hurt others, and therefore don’t value the rewards they get from these decisions as much.
"Our findings suggest the brain internalizes the moral judgments of others, simulating how much others might blame us for potential wrongdoing, even when we know our actions are anonymous,” said Crockett.
“What we have shown here is how values that guide our decisions respond flexibly to moral consequences," added senior author Ray Dolan. "An important goal for future research is understanding when and how this circuitry is disturbed in contexts such as antisocial behavior.”