Neurowords and the burden of responsibility

The New York Times has an excellent article about the fallacy of assuming that a brain-based explanation of behaviour automatically implies that the person is less responsible for their actions.

The piece is by two psychologists, John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz, who discuss their research on how attributions of blame can be altered simply by giving psychological or neurological explanations for the same behaviour.

The fallacy comes in, of course, because psychology and neuroscience are just different tools we use to describe, in this case, the same behaviour.

A brain characteristic that was even weakly associated with violence led people to exonerate the protagonist more than a psychological factor that was strongly associated with violent acts….

We labeled this pattern of responses “naïve dualism.” This is the belief that acts are brought about either by intentions or by the physical laws that govern our brains and that those two types of causes — psychological and biological — are categorically distinct. People are responsible for actions resulting from one but not the other. (In citing neuroscience, the Supreme Court may have been guilty of naïve dualism: did it really need brain evidence to conclude that adolescents are immature?)

Naïve dualism is misguided. “Was the cause psychological or biological?” is the wrong question when assigning responsibility for an action. All psychological states are also biological ones.

A better question is “how strong was the relation between the cause (whatever it happened to be) and the effect?”

In light of the Aurora shootings and the prematurely and already misfiring debate about the shooter’s ‘brain state’, this is well worth checking out.

Link to NYT piece ‘Did Your Brain Make You Do It?’ (via @TheNeuroTimes)

4 thoughts on “Neurowords and the burden of responsibility”

  1. interesting. I thought this would be about the effect of language on the brain. Some words carry an emotional weight.

  2. The debate has always been massively confused about the difference between justice (in its negative form, punishing the guilty), and the more useful social function of deterrence. I may hear voices in my head, telling me to do things: but if you can persuade me that I do not want the results of doing those things, then regardless of whether you have cured me, or made it clear that those things are abstractly Wrong, you can sometimes stop me doing them. Threats are one way to achieve this persuasion, though not the only way.

    Vengeance is an unhealthy act (for a person, or a society): deterrence is more rational.

    If people are seen as escaping by way of psychiatric technicalities, this makes the threat less effective, and reduces the social benefit of punishment as deterrence.

  3. Something to think about, but on the flip side of this specific situation in Colorado is this: Why are mental health problems so limited in America’s healthcare system? Funding has been cut so drastically for mental-health that proper assessment, diagnosis and treatment could take years instead of months. From this one situation we have how many people that have been affected the rest of their lives…I’m sure it’s in the thousands. I’m speaking of everyone associated with anyone by the shooting, including the family and friends of the shooter, and the psychiatrist. Gun control gets better media attention than cuts in mental health funding.

  4. I think, much like the compatibilists, you are trying to have it both ways.

    Either the brain is a deterministic physical object or it isn’t. If it is, then we are quite simply not metaphysically responsible for our actions. If it isn’t, then you still might find room for metaphysical responsibility in the indeterminacy of our brain states. Even still, it seems like unless you can trace responsibility to some sort of metaphysical origin – i.e., a soul – you are going to run into the fact that you can’t locate the entities responsible for their actions inside the brain, since, even in an indeterminate situation, neural processing is a distributed, global process.

    It’s time we confront the uncomfortable fact that society’s views of crime and punishment are, at the very best, simplistic, and, at the very worst, based on a myth. Until then, it seems like everyone is quite forgiving of the mentally ill up until the point where they do something that’s actually insane – i.e., kill people.

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