I’m a pretty logical person—almost too much so, most likely—especially when it comes to dealing with situations in which others are swayed more by emotions. For example, I have difficulty caring about providing prosthetics for dogs while human beings are starving or providing public funding for physically disabled individuals to be able to experience absolutely everything that a fully abled person has access to. Maybe people without legs don’t have to get to go skiing.
You would think that this trend would carry over into a general sense of justice. It seems like quite an emotional thing. People get worked up when life intervenes and deals a raw hand. Criminals should always be caught and punished appropriately for their crime.
I’ve always thought I was on the harsher side of the justice scale, thinking lots of jack asses in the world should get a solid punch in the face, for example. But it never seemed to jive with my logic circuits.
A new study out of the University of Chicago, however, might have something to say on the subject. After putting a couple dozen test subjects into an fMRI machine and having them watch video clips of injustices, a team of researchers found that people with high justice sensitivity are pushed by higher cognitive functions rather than emotional ones.
For example, participants saw a person put money in a beggar’s cup or kick the beggar’s cup away, and were asked to rate how much they would blame or praise the actions. Surprisingly, 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… not so much.
Jean Decety, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago and lead on the study, said the conclusions were clear. “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven. Rather, they are cognitively driven.”
Of course, clear is a relative concept. The study had a sample size of a whopping 40 people, likely all from the same city. It’s hard to say anything is for certain with that few of test subjects who aren’t likely to be very socioeconomically diverse, to say nothing of other cultures outside of the United States.
But still, it’s an interesting concept. Plus it strokes my own ego, so there’s always that.
The awesomely titled study, “The Good, the Bad, and the Just: Justice Sensitivity Predicts Neural Response during Moral Evaluation of Actions Performed by Others,” was published in the Journal of Neuroscience by Decety and Keith Yoder.