The BPS has published a discussion paper on “Neuroethics”. Neuroethics is an unnecessary phrase which covers a hodge-podge of ethical concerns for psychology researchers and broader societal concerns over the application of findings from the cognitive neurosciences.
The paper, prepared by the impressive team of Carl Senior, Patrick Haggard and John Oates, is mostly a discussion of the particular ethical issues that might arise from research using cognitive neuroscience techniques such as fMRI. Overall, it seems to me that all of the substantive ethical issues mentioned by the paper are treated at length by existing moral philosophy (and in particular by medical ethics). It is not clear that psychology and neurosciences have anything to add, which should be a first clue that the idea of “neuroethics” is inherently dubious.
A particularly revealing moment is the authors’ discussion of the evidence showing that people are more likely to believe an explanation when it is presented alongside a picture of a brain scan (McCabe & Castel, 2008 – covered on Mind Hacks here). This, for the authors of the discussion paper, raises the spectre of BPS members having “undue influence” by accompanying their explanations with pictures of brain scans.
In light of the persuasive power of brain scan imagery its use to illustrate any fact should be restricted as much as possible. Brain scan imagery should not be included on recruitment posters for participation in experiments
Here, the authors seem to have been affected by a peculiar version of the very effect they are warning against! They treat influence due to brain imagery as somehow exceptional, in the same way that people in the experiments treat explanations using brain imagery as somehow exceptional. Consider how the argument would look if it was a prescription against accompanying your communications with partcular phrases, or with offers of financial rewards. The way explanations are phrased affects how often they are believed – that does not mean psychologists should not try to be persuasive, nor that they are wrangling the minds of the public in an exceptional way if they are. There is evidence that monetary rewards, like brain imagery, can distort people’s judgement (see, e.g., Hsee, Zhang & Zhang, 2003) – the BPS has not recommended that members can’t pay people to participate in experiments.
It is part of normal cognitive function to be affected by the environment, and there are many quirks about the way we humans are affected by the exact content and structure of the environment. Examples of that influence are not automatically examples of “undue influence”, regardless of whether they involve brain imagery or not.
There are genuine ethical issues which are peculiar to cognitive neuroscience, but our duty to attend to these is better served by seeing brain related issues in the context of general ethics, rather than pandering to the kind of exceptionalism that the phrase “neuroethics” encourages.
Hsee, C. K., Yu, F., Zhang, J., & Zhang, Y. (2003). Medium maximization. Journal of Consumer Research, 1–14.
McCabe, D. P., & Castel, A. D. (2008). Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition, 107(1), 343-352. doi:16/j.cognition.2007.07.017