Would you steal an expensive drug from a large, thriving pharmaceutical company if it meant saving your spouse’s life? How about from the mom-and-pop drugstore down the street? While you may never be confronted by a situation like this one, it is an almost inescapable fact that at some point, you will find yourself in the middle of a messy moral dilemma. One might imagine that decisions of this caliber require every ounce of decision-making power that the brain can muster. According to a Harvard study released this week, however, one would be wrong.
Scientists Amitai Shenhav and Joshua Greene used brain imaging to monitor the neural activity of 34 subjects as they solved an ethical problem. The subjects were asked to choose between attempting to save one life knowing with certainty that the attempt would succeed or attempting to save several lives without that certainty. Different variations in possible number of lives saved and odds of success were tested.
Surprisingly, the results of the study showed that the same areas of the brain “light up” when we make complex moral decisions as when we make incredibly basic decisions. And I mean basic. Think “pancakes or French toast?”
The reason for this disconcerting finding is that the innermost workings of our brain circuitry date back to the earliest ancestors of mankind. Rewind several thousand years and you find yourself pondering whether to run or hide, hunt or fish. We still use the same basic pathways to make the most complex, life-altering choices. In fact, only two simple questions govern the moral decisions we make, the decisions that humans were making thousands and thousands of years ago, and even the decisions that many animals make when threatened: What are the possible consequences and what are the chances that these consequences will materialize?
Sort of a relief or kind of scary? It’s hard to say. While the idea that it all comes down to pro’s and con’s simplifies important decisions significantly, we are inevitably led to the disturbing realization that the people making decisions that impact our health, our money and our safety are working with little more than we are when we pick regular coffee over decaf.
Article image via hand facts.