How Heroes and Villains Make Themselves Stronger

Performing good deeds (or just thinking about doing them) helps us perform better on tests of physical endurance and willpower, new research suggests. But doing evil things make us even stronger.
Kurt Gray, a postdoctoral student at Harvard University, gave people a dollar and told them they could keep it or donate it to charity. Then he asked them to hold a five-pound weight. He found that those who donated the money could hold the weight for an average of about 10 seconds longer than those who kept the money for themselves.
Next, he asked volunteers to hold the weight while writing a made-up story in which they helped someone else, hurt someone else, or did something that had no impact on another person. Those who thought about performing a good deed held the weight longer than those who thought about a neutral action. Those who imagined harming someone else, however, held the weight the longest.
What’s happening here? Gray calls it “moral transformation.” Helping others, he says, has the power to make average people extraordinary. Strength comes from moral actions, not the other way around. As Gray explains:

People perceive those who do good and evil to have more efficacy, more willpower, and less sensitivity to discomfort. By perceiving themselves as good or evil, people embody these perceptions, actually becoming more capable of physical endurance (Harvard Gazette).

The findings contradict suggestions that only those people with heightened willpower or self-control are capable of heroism. Researchers believe that simply attempting heroic deeds can confer personal power (Telegraph).

How Does the Brain Make Moral Judgments?

What’s right and what’s wrong? When we judge the actions of other people, we tend to do so based on two things: the consequences of those actions and their underlying intentions. In other words, we try to get inside people’s heads and infer why they did what they did—and how well they understood why they did it.

But what if we change the way our brains work? Would it change how we judge the moral culpability of others? Liane Young, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, decided to find out.

Past studies have shown that an area of the brain called the right temporoparietal junction shows more activity when we try to reason about another person’s thoughts and beliefs. So Young and colleagues figured that, if they disrupted how well the RTPJ functions, this might alter moral judgments of someone’s action that rely on assumptions about their intention (The Great Beyond, Nature).

It turns out they were right. When the scientists applied magnetic pulses to the skull near the RTPJ, they found that people judged other’s actions based solely on consequences, ignoring intentions and beliefs, in a manner similar to how young children reason about such things. To them, a “happy ending” makes a morally questionable action OK—even if that ending is just a lucky outcome. A man who let his girlfriend walk across an unsafe bridge, for example, “had done nothing wrong” if she made it across safely. As the researchers explain it, “When activity in the RTPJ is disrupted, participants’ moral judgments shift toward a ‘no harm, no foul’ mentality” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

Alarming stuff. The research suggests that our moral judgments can be altered—in milliseconds—with something as simple as a magnetic signal. As Young herself points out in a write-up of the study:

You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior. To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.

Yet it’s only disturbing if you view morality as a lofty and immutable human trait, says Joshua Greene, a psychologist at Harvard University. But that view isn’t accurate, he says. “Moral judgment is just a brain process,” he says. “That’s precisely why it’s possible for these researchers to influence it using electromagnetic pulses on the surface of the brain” (NPR).

Did Morality Emerge Before Religion?

Marc Hauser of Harvard University and Ilkka Pyysiäinen of the University of Helsinki have published an opinion piece in Trends in Cognitive Sciences that looks at the link between morality and religion.
They point out that several psychological studies (many conducted using the Moral Sense Test) have shown that when it comes to unfamiliar moral dilemmas, atheists and those with a religious background show no difference in their moral judgments—suggesting that our intuitive judgments of right and wrong operate independently from our religious beliefs. Experiments did show that people with a religious background were more likely to sacrifice their own lives to save the greatest number of others, but the researchers argue that “religious pressures might lead people to offer this judgment because they believe it is the morally appropriate answer. What religion can do, and what political and legal institutions can do as well, is alter local and highly specific cases. And yet, they appear to have no influence at all on the intuitive system that operates more generally, and for unfamiliar cases.”
Here’s a good example to illustrate the point:

In a wide variety of studies, using different methods and populations, subjects consistently judge actions that cause harm as worse than omissions causing the same harm—a distinction referred to as the omission bias. In some studies, and in some populations, specific examples might not reveal the omission bias, but rarely does one observe a reversal such that omissions are judged more harshly than actions. For example, although the Netherlands passed a bill in 2001 making both active euthanasia (administering an overdose to an individual who is suffering) and passive euthanasia (allowing to die by terminating life support) legally permissible, the Dutch show as strong an omission bias as American subjects, despite the fact that in the USA, active euthanasia is illegal. This reveals that the law, as a formal moral system, can only provide specific guidelines for specific actions, but such knowledge fails to penetrate or alter our folk moral intuitions. According to this view, and as noted above, explicit religious commitment seems to be comparable to law, providing specific guidelines for specific actions, but dissociated from the system that mediates moral intuitions.

The authors hope we can use their paper as a jumping-off point to further explore (and, in some ways, rethink) the complex relationship between religion and morality, concluding:

It seems that in many cultures religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualizing moral intuitions. Although, as we have discussed, this link is not a necessary one, many people have become so accustomed to using it, that criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence.

More on Morality From Michael Shermer

Having introduced us to the “Ask-First Principle” earlier this week, he now offers the “Happiness Principle” as a way to further help us judge between right and wrong:

The happiness principle states that it is a higher moral principle to always seek happiness with someone else’s happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else’s unhappiness. My friend and colleague, the social scientist and moral philosopher Jay Stuart Snelson, expressed this sentiment well in his “win-win principle”: “Always seek gain through the gain of others, and never seek gain through the forced or fraudulent loss of others.”

So, for any given moral question, one may begin by asking the moral receiver how he or she would respond, then ask yourself if the action in question will likely lead to greater or lesser levels of happiness for yourself and the moral receiver. The ask-first principle and the happiness principle dovetail because the moral receiver is, presumably, seeking greater levels of happiness; thus, by asking first what you should do, you will also receive feedback on how the moral receiver’s happiness will be affected by your actions.

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