05 December, New Delhi
A new study tries to explain the paradox of why we are quick to blame people for their actions, but slower to give them credit.We constantly read others’ intentions in what they do from seeing someone help an elderly person cross the street or jump queues or commit a heinous crime.
Published in Scientific Reports, the Duke University study is the first such attempt to use neuroscience research tools to try to explain why people are biased toward treating negative actions as intentional but positive actions as unintentional, said the study’s lead author Lawrence Ngo, now a first-year resident in internal medicine at the Moses H Cone Memorial Hospital.Take this scenario commonly used in the field of experimental philosophy:
The CEO knew the plan would harm the environment, but he did not care at all about the effect the plan would have on the environment and he started the plan solely to increase profits.Did the CEO intentionally harm the environment? If you said ‘yes,’ then you align with the majority:
In previously published work, 82 per cent responded that the CEO was deliberate.When the researchers replaced the single word “harm” with “help” in the scenario, however, only 23 per cent deemed the CEO’s actions intentional.”There’s no logical reason why we would call something intentional, just because it causes a bad outcome as opposed to a good outcome,” said corresponding author Scott Huettel, professor of psychology and neuroscience and member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. “Intentionality implies purpose on the part of the person, and that should be there for good as much as it is for bad. But it’s not,” Huettel added.
To understand why, Huettel’s team assessed differences in personality traits and other psychological measures.Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, a type of non-invasive brain scan, the researchers also analysed activity of individuals’ brains while they read the scenarios.
The team found that people use two different mechanisms to judge how intentional an action was.If the action produced a negative effect, participants were more likely to draw on brain areas involved in processing emotion (in particular, the amygdala, a pair of almond-shaped structures deep in the brain that is well known for its role in processing negative emotions).
The greater the emotional reaction the participant reported having to a particular story, the stronger it activated their amygdala.But if an action produced a positive effect, it was less likely to set off the amygdala.On the other hand, for positive outcomes, people relied less on emotion and more on statistics.
That is, they thought about how often people in a particular situation would behave in a similar way. In the example of the CEO who makes a profit and also helps the environment, participants were more likely to say that because CEOs commonly aim to make money, helping the environment was an unintentional side-effect.