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March 30th, 2010
05:41 PM ET

Can morality be changed magnetically?

By Elizabeth Landau
CNN.com Health Writer/Producer

Do you judge the ethics of a situation based on a person's intention or the outcome of the situation? It turns out that magnetic stimulation can actually change the way you decide, according to a new study.

Researchers led by Liane Young at Massachusetts Institute of Technology started with previous studies showing that there's a relationship between moral judgment and a part of the brain called the right temporoparietal junction. This region is located between the temporal and parietal lobes on the brain's right side. People with high activity in this region have been shown to be more likely to use intention in deciding morality, rather than just looking at the outcomes of a situation.

In the new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers temporarily interrupted brain activity in participants with a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation. This basically induces an electric current in the brain, Young said. This allowed researchers to see if disrupted activity in the right temporoparietal junction had any effect on moral judgment, she said. This was a small study involving 20 undergraduates.

The researchers found that this actually made participants more likely to decide morality based on outcomes, rather than intentions. Participants tended to find it morally permissible in cases when the agent in the example has a bad intention but causes a neutral outcome, Young said.

Researchers used the example of a person, Grace, who puts a powder in her friend's coffee. In one variant, Grace thinks the powder is toxic, and her friend dies - this is a negative intention with a negative outcome. In another, she thinks the powder is toxic, but her friend is fine - a negative intention with a neutral outcome.

"It seems to be the case that if certain parts of the brain are damaged, moral judgments will look different," Young said.

The downside of the study is that it shows a somewhat modest effect, said Dr. Gregory Berns, director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University. Also, scenarios such as the poison powder example are complicated and not entirely realistic. "People will answer these questions often times in a way that is socially expected of them," he said. "The only way to sort that out is when you’re in the situation."

Still, this is interesting research, although it is difficult to pin down which part of the brain is really responsible for morality at present, Berns said.

Young's group's subsequent research will look at the role of this particular brain region in assessing cultural taboos such as forbidden foods, incest, and purity.

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March 30th, 2010
11:31 AM ET

Group tells Ronald McDonald to take a hike

By Madison Park
CNNhealth.com writer/producer

A corporate watchdog group that got rid of Joe Camel is after another icon - this time, its target is tall, red and happy.

Corporate Accountability International plans to host a retirement party for Ronald McDonald as it releases a report Wednesday that basically says,  "We’re not loving it. " The report calls for McDonald’s to stop using the iconic clown.

“For nearly 50 years, Ronald McDonald has hooked kids on unhealthy foods spurring a deadly epidemic of diet-related diseases,” said Deborah Lapidus, the senior organizer at Corporate Accountability International. “Ultimately the report makes the case that it’s time that McDonald’s stop directing fast food to kids.  Really, Ronald deserves a break and so do we.”

The group plans to hold events outside of McDonald's throughout the country and wants the fast food chain to stop using its corporate mascot.  The mascot makes children “vulnerable to manipulations to marketing” and turns them on to junk food at an age when childhood obesity rates  have soared, Lapidus said.

The group is employing the same strategy as it did to target the cigarette mascot in its “Send Joe Camel packing” campaign in the 1990s.

“A lot of our thinking is modeled on that campaign and success,” Lapidus said.  “We think of Ronald McDonald as a deep-fried Joe Camel for 21st century.”

McDonald’s does not appear to have plans to ditch the clown.  The company released a statement to CNN.com calling Ronald McDonald “a beloved brand ambassador for McDonald's” and described him as crucial to its charity efforts to help families of hospitalized children.

“Ronald also helps deliver messages to families on many important subjects such as safety, literacy, and the importance of physical activity and making balanced food choices. That's what Ronald McDonald is all about, which our customers know and appreciate,” according to the statement.

Lapidus said the fast food giant's message has  some “fundamental ironies.”

“McDonald’s charity does a lot of good and they do work to be commended,” she said.  “But there are serious question about the face of the charity that’s about kids getting better that also promotes unhealthy food to kids.  Could it not serve the same children without the cross promotion of burgers and fries which are affecting kids' health?”

Other McDonald’s characters, such as Hamburglar or Grimace (the purple triangular fellow) can rest easy.  Health advocates are not targeting them.


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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