The psychological effects of brain theories

The Frontal Cortex has an interesting piece on how giving people information suggesting that neuroscience undermines our everyday concept of free will can alter our ethical behaviour.

The post discusses two experiments where participants had been given information suggesting that free will was an illusion – one passage taken from Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis that argues against the everyday concept of free will on the basis of neurobiology.

It seems even these relatively brief encounters with information arguing against free-will had a noticeable effect on behaviour:

It turned out that students who had read the anti-free will quote were significantly more likely to cheat on the mental arithmetic test; their exposure to some basic scientific spin – your soul is a piece of meat – led to an increase in amorality. Of course, this is a relatively mild ethical lapse – as Schooler notes, “None of the participants exposed to the anti-free will message assaulted the experimenter or ran off with the payment kitty” – but it still demonstrates that even seemingly banal materialist concepts can alter our ethical behavior.

In another study, information on a “disbelief in free will” reduced people’s willingness to help others and increased the amount of unhelpful behaviour toward others.

The issue of free will in neuroscience is complex, but it is interesting that the information provided doesn’t bear directly on the issue of whether it is best to help other people or not.

Clearly though, biological explanations have an association with the idea that people are less in control of their actions, as we also know from other studies.

Science tends to assume that theories are not neutral in that they affect how we look at the world as researchers, but it is interesting to find out that this also happens on a personal psychological level as well.

Link to Frontal Cortex on ‘Free Will and Ethics’.

One Comment

  1. Posted January 2, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    A problem I’ve noticed with coverage of this research is that culture is ignored as a mediating factor. Western dualist culture inherently ascribes meaning and ethics to the non-corporeal realm, so when presented with evidence against dualism the most intuitive conclusion for individuals raised in this culture is that meaning and ethics don’t exist. No wonder, then, that such individuals change their behaviour to reflect an absence of ethics. However, this does not mean that cultural rejection of dualism necessitates cultural rejection of ethics. Ethical notions can be derived in absence of non-coporeal souls and deities. Most notable in this regard are the advances in game theory describing how outcomes can be optimized for both the individual and society through cooperative, “non-zero-sum” behaviours. By pursuing similar programmes of research on the coordination of individual and group behaviour, it may be possible to validate many of the cherished ethical notions originally derived in the dualist tradition. I would suggest that individuals sufficiently versed in the products of such research would, in the face of evidence against dualism, persist in behaving “ethically”. We can have our scientific cake and ethically eat it too!


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