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How the Brain Decides Whether to ‘Sell Out’


Researchers at Emory University found “sacred values” people refuse to give are processed differently than values values that they are willing to compromise.

The study, which was published in the journal of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, showed that Sacred values prompt greater activation of an area of the brain associated with rules-based, right-or-wrong thought processes, as opposed to the regions linked to processing of costs-versus-benefits.

So even when offered cash or prizes, people refuse to bend on highly personal values.

“Our experiment found that the realm of the sacred – whether it’s a strong religious belief, a national identity or a code of ethics – is a distinct cognitive process,” says Gregory Berns, director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University and lead author of the study.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the brain functions of 32 adults participating in the study. First participants were shown a group of statements ranging from general declarations such as, “you are a tea drinker,” to controversial topics including, “you support gay marriage.”

For every 62 statements there was a contradictory pair in which the subjects were asked to choose from, such as, “you are pro-choice.”

At the end of the study participants had the choice to change their answers to the previous questions for a monetary reward. Each subject was given the opportunity to earn up to $100 per statement if they agreed to sign a document declaring the opposite of what they believed. Individuals had the option to decline to alter statements that they had a high moral stance on.

“We used the auction as a measure of integrity for specific statements,” Berns explained. “If a person refused to take money to change a statement, then we considered that value to be personally sacred to them. But if they took money, then we considered that they had low integrity for that statement and that it wasn’t sacred.”

Brain imaging data recorded by researchers exhibited a strong connection between sacred values and activity in the neutral systems, often associated with deciding what’s right and wrong – the left temporoparietal junction – and acknowledging rules – the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. The areas of the brain associated with rewards showed little to no activity.

“Most public policy is based on offering people incentives and disincentives,” he said. “Our findings indicate that it’s unreasonable to think that a policy based on costs-and-benefits analysis will influence people’s behavior when it comes to their sacred personal values, because they are processed in an entirely different brain system than incentives.”

People that participated in organizations known for high moral code, including religious organizations, sports teams, musical groups and environmental clubs, showed especially strong brain activity in the region that register sacred values.

In instances where participants chose not to take money in exchange for going against their beliefs, the amygdala region, which is associated with emotional reactions, also showed significant activity.

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