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Using MR on the brain to explain 'the blame game'

by Lisa Chamoff, Contributing Reporter | December 09, 2015
Alzheimers/Neurology MRI X-Ray
As shown in this functional
MR image, the amygdala, a
part of the brain involved in
processing emotions, is more
active in people who are blaming
others for their negative actions.

Credit: Lawrence Ngo
Why are most people quick to decide that a bad action is intentional, but are slow to give credit for a good action? Blame the brain — or, more accurately, the amygdala.

Researchers at Duke University examined this philosophical question using brain scans, presenting their findings in a study published last week in the journal Scientific Reports. They gave 283 study participants 15 pairs of vignettes and asked what they thought about the subjects’ intentions. While the researchers read the scenarios, they analyzed the study participants’ brain activity using functional MRI.

“It makes intuitive sense — when you see someone take a bad action, you often think they’re doing it on purpose,” Scott Huettel, corresponding author, professor of psychology and neuroscience, and Duke Institute for Brain Sciences member, told HCB News. “The data and intuition go together. We wanted to understand why.”

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The vignettes included this one, commonly used in the field of experimental philosophy:


The CEO knew the plan would harm the environment, but he did not care at all about the effect the plan would have on the environment. He started the plan solely to increase profits. Did the CEO intentionally harm the environment?


The researchers found that the majority of participants thought the CEO’s actions were deliberate. When they asked the participants the same question, but changed the word “harm” to “help,” a much smaller percentage thought the CEO’s actions were intentional.

Looking at the brain scans, the researchers found that participants who judged an action as intentional had more activity in the amygdala, which has a role in processing negative emotions. Conversely, the stories in which there was a positive effect were less likely to cause activity in the amygdala.

“We have a nice connection between people’s reports of their emotional state and activity in the brain,” Huettel said.

Huettel said that while he is not a legal scholar, he believes the research could be relevant in legal settings, as people convicted of crimes are generally given stiffer sentences for actions deemed intentional rather than accidental.

“I think the legal system will have to identify a way of separating the judgments of intentionality and judgments of consequences,” Huettel said. “That may not be simple. I think in the long term, that may cause procedural changes.”

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