So Much For Soft Hearted and Squishy Headed

There’s a popular stereotype which says that people who worry about the homeless, racism, poverty and other social ills have soft hearts and squishy heads. Those who do not share their concerns will often accuse them of abandoning logic for emotionalism. Because emotions are for silly women, queers and other people not to be taken seriously, of course.

However, my friend Sonya (hi, Sonya!) recently passed on a study which shows that, scientifically speaking, this stereotype is dead wrong. Researchers using brain scans found that rather than being driven by emotions, people who are concerned with issues of social justice make greater use of the logic centers of their brains than people who do not:

Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain-scanning device, the team studied what happened in the participants’ brains as they judged videos depicting behavior that was morally good or bad. For example, they saw a person put money in a beggar’s cup or kick the beggar’s cup away. The participants were asked to rate on a scale how much they would blame or praise the actor seen in the video. People in the study also completed questionnaires that assessed cognitive and emotional empathy, as well as their justice sensitivity.

As expected, study participants who scored high on the justice sensitivity questionnaire assigned significantly more blame when they were evaluating scenes of harm, Decety said. They also registered more praise for scenes showing a person helping another individual.

But the brain imaging also yielded surprises. During the behavior-evaluation exercise, people with high justice sensitivity showed more activity than average participants in parts of the brain associated with higher-order cognition. Brain areas commonly linked with emotional processing were not affected.

The conclusion was clear, Decety said: “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven. Rather, they are cognitively driven.”

This goes a long way towards explaining some of the facebook conversations I’ve had lately. You know the kind; someone saying something idiotic responds to factual evidence that their claims are wrong by jumping to their next talking point or looking for some petty inconsistency in your argument rather than deal with reality. They aren’t being logical, but are driven by the emotional imperative to avoid being wrong. Ahem.

You can read more about the study (conducted at the University of Chicago) here.

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