Values Tested: The Price (Of Your Soul) is Right!
By Erin Froehlich
From the Id and Ego Blog Series
Psychology nerds! Welcome back for your tid-bit of the week!
Id and Ego is here again and this time I’m bringing you the results of an intriguing new experiment. In it, researcher sought to put those things we value mostly to the ultimate test: a bid.
Said lead author on the study, Gregory Burns of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University, "We've come up with a method to start answering scientific questions about how people make decisions involving sacred values, and that has major implications if you want to better understand what influences human behavior across countries and cultures…”
In this study, designed under the “all-star” team guidance of economists, information scientists, psychologists and anthropologists, researchers used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to record the brain response of participants during a two phase test.
First, participants were asked to pick between two stances.
There were trivial things:
“You are a tea drinker.” OR “You are not a tea drinker.”
There were some of the most controversial issues of our times:
“You support gay marriage.” OR “You do not support gay marriage.”
“You are Pro-Life.” OR “You are Pro-Choice.”
Then, having decided for one side or another on a total of 62 issues, the participants values were put to the test. One by one, the choice they made on each issues appear on the screen in front of them and one by one, they were given the same offer.
“Please select a dollar amount between 1 and 100 that you would accept to change your answer to [the opposite stance]… If you choose to opt out, please type in ‘opt’ ”
Participants would then have to sign a document stating that opposite stance.
“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." explained Berns.
Interestingly, when a person’s “sacred” values were challenged, brain activity was significantly different that when issues they considered trivial were presented. With those most important issues, neural systems associated with rules and the evaluation of right and wrong were kicked into high gear, NOT cost-vs-benefit as researchers may have suspected. Additionally, when a person refused to take any amount of money to refute their stance, the amygdala, associated with strong emotions was activated.
"Those statements represent the most repugnant items to the individual," Berns explains.
Also interesting, though perhaps more expected, is that participants involved with an organization such a team, club or church held values more sacred.
Said Berns “Most public policy is based on offering people incentives and disincentives… 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.”
The result of this study were published with a dozen other articles on the culture of neuroscience in a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society titled “The Biology of Cultural Conflict”.
As Berns points out that issues of a women’s reproductive rights or gay marriage - two of the most pressing issues of the day - are both greatly affected by what the field of science has to say about biology.
In a final word Berns states, "As culture changes, it affects our brains, and as our brains change, that affects our culture. You can't separate the two… We now have the means to start understanding this relationship, and that's putting the relatively new field of cultural neuroscience onto the global stage.”