RadioLab on the science of morality

I’ve just discovered another episode of the excellent WNYC RadioLab – this one on the psychology and neuroscience of morality. It tackles everything from the development of moral reasoning as a child, to the neuroscience of ethical decision-making, to the psychology of prisons and solitary confinement.

If you’ve never heard RadioLab before, have a listen, not least because of the beautiful production. It often contains some wonderfully illustrative moments – something akin to the radio equivalent of the ‘hip hop montage’ film editing technique.

One segment looks at how researchers are attempting to tackle moral reasoning in the lab, something which is becoming an increasingly important research area – as demonstrated by the popularity of Marc Hauser’s book Moral Minds.

This research, as well as observational studies on non-human primates, has suggested that some moral behaviour may inherited.

The idea that pro-social behaviour may be the result of evolution has led to the cover story in this week’s New Scientist to pose the related question “If morality is hard-wired in the brain, what’s the point of religion?’

Sadly, the article isn’t open access (pro-social behaviour not being fully evolved in the NewSci offices) but it’s an interesting review of some recent studies on the psychology of religion, with some speculative commentary on the possible evolutionary roles of spiritual faith:

Psychologists Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, found that by presenting people first with a word game unscrambling either religious or non-religious phrases, even atheists could be primed to be more generous to an anonymous partner by exposure to the religious words [pdf]…

So why do religious concepts provoke moral behaviour even in non-believers? It’s because both religion and morality are evolutionary adaptations, says Jesse Bering, who heads the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University, Belfast, UK. Morality does not stem from religion, as is often argued, he suggests: they evolved separately, albeit in response to the same forces in our social environment. Once our ancestors acquired language and theory of mind – the ability to understand what others are thinking – news of any individual’s reputation could spread far beyond their immediate group. Anyone with tendencies to behave pro-socially would then have been at an advantage, Bering says: “What we’re concerned about in terms of our moral behaviour is what other people think about us.” So morality became adaptive.

Link to RadioLab on the science of morality.

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