Sunday, August 02, 2009

Honesty - Will or Grace?

Patterns of neural activity associated with honest and dishonest moral decisions
What makes people behave honestly when confronted with opportunities for dishonest gain? Research on the interplay between controlled and automatic processes in decision making suggests 2 hypotheses: According to the “Will” hypothesis, honesty results from the active resistance of temptation, comparable to the controlled cognitive processes that enable the delay of reward. According to the “Grace” hypothesis, honesty results from the absence of temptation, consistent with research emphasizing the determination of behavior by the presence or absence of automatic processes. To test these hypotheses, we examined neural activity in individuals confronted with opportunities for dishonest gain. Subjects undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) gained money by accurately predicting the outcomes of computerized coin-flips. In some trials, subjects recorded their predictions in advance. In other trials, subjects were rewarded based on self-reported accuracy, allowing them to gain money dishonestly by lying about the accuracy of their predictions. Many subjects behaved dishonestly, as indicated by improbable levels of “accuracy.” Our findings support the Grace hypothesis. Individuals who behaved honestly exhibited no additional control-related activity (or other kind of activity) when choosing to behave honestly, as compared with a control condition in which there was no opportunity for dishonest gain. In contrast, individuals who behaved dishonestly exhibited increased activity in control-related regions of prefrontal cortex, both when choosing to behave dishonestly and on occasions when they refrained from dishonesty. Levels of activity in these regions correlated with the frequency of dishonesty in individuals.

Some people were always honest and they showed no special brain activity, other people were sometimes dishonest and they did display increased brain activity. This doesn't really seem surprising. Which isn't to say that this experiment is trivial, far from it - it's fascinating. It would be interesting to see if there are unusual people who can perform dishonestly without registering any special brain activity. Presumably these people would be naturally good spys, poker players, etc.
See the web page of the Moral Cognition Lab at Harvard.
There's a discussion of the paper at this blog post: Angels and Demons.

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