Disruption of the right temporoparietal junction with transcranial magnetic stimulation reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgments

post by Kevin · 2010-12-15T14:44:05.499Z · score: 0 (3 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 9 comments

http://www.pnas.org/content/107/15/6753.full

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/8593748.stm

http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2007859

9 comments

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comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2010-12-15T17:12:03.700Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

The RTPJ doesn't control morality, it controls theory of mind. This is known and the study admits it (though the BBC doesn't).

All this shows is that moral judgments that require considering people's mental states call the theory of mind function, which is predictable. If you can't think about someone's beliefs at all, you can't use them as a mitigating factor in a moral judgment.

If you gave someone a stroke and caused hemineglect, they'd stop condemning immoral actions that happened on one side of the visual field, but that wouldn't mean you'd discovered something interesting about their morality.

The study gets this exactly right: "Our hypothesis therefore is that TMS to the RTPJ affects an input to moral judgment (i.e., belief information) but not the process of moral judgment per se."

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-15T16:32:52.253Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

To be honest, I discount anything with Hauser's name attached, unfair though that might be to his poor grad students. And I particularly discount anything with Hauser's name which did not go through normal peer review.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-15T16:35:21.638Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Can you give some context for this remark? I don't think I've heard of Hauser.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-15T17:02:33.815Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Marc Hauser is a Harvard psychologist, one of the best known experimental psychologists practicing today, with a remarkable publication record. Trouble is, some of his data was fake. Scuttlebutt is that his grad students finally had enough and forced the university to act. Good for them.

LessWrong people may be interested in Hauser since most "Trolley problem" experimental research you have seen here has his signature on it. Hauser's humiliation has led to humorous handwringing from bloggers who know him and poorly disguised glee from bloggers who don't like him

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2010-12-15T18:13:21.296Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Is there any reason to be worried about his work other than the fairly subjective coding of animal and infant behavior? Yes, I would expect that to correlate with fraud in other experiments, but I would also expect fraud in experiments like this one to be easily detected in the actual investigation, and that doesn't seem to have happened.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-15T18:28:52.767Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know. But I do suspect that most scientific fraud takes place at the research-design stage. There is enormous pressure to publish, pressure to graduate. It takes integrity to resist that pressure. Hauser really does have a remarkable record of publication, even after you subtract the ones that he was forced to retract because the results could not be replicated or in which data was clearly faked.

What do you think? Would you trust cutting edge, glamorous research from this man? A guy who has been involved in glamorous research so many times before. And Saxe as the other senior researcher in this paper. Wow, someone who has been invited to do TED lectures. These people are true rock-stars among scientists.

comment by lukeprog · 2010-12-19T22:09:27.798Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I interviewed the lead author of this paper for my podcast, in which Dr. Young provides some context for the study and discusses greater implications, for example the possibility that the normative theory you find most plausible is influenced by your brain configuration, for example how active your RTPJ is.

comment by Manfred · 2010-12-15T16:35:48.237Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting (though unsurprising to us non-dualists). To repost the abstract for easy reading:

"When we judge an action as morally right or wrong, we rely on our capacity to infer the actor's mental states (e.g., beliefs, intentions). Here, we test the hypothesis that the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), an area involved in mental state reasoning, is necessary for making moral judgments. In two experiments, we used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to disrupt neural activity in the RTPJ transiently before moral judgment (experiment 1, offline stimulation) and during moral judgment (experiment 2, online stimulation). In both experiments, TMS to the RTPJ led participants to rely less on the actor's mental states. A particularly striking effect occurred for attempted harms (e.g., actors who intended but failed to do harm): Relative to TMS to a control site, TMS to the RTPJ caused participants to judge attempted harms as less morally forbidden and more morally permissible. Thus, interfering with activity in the RTPJ disrupts the capacity to use mental states in moral judgment, especially in the case of attempted harms."

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-12-15T20:33:58.481Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for this.

Tip for posters: when linking to original research, include the title, abstract, journal etc please!