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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soundoff (162 Responses)
  1. azezel

    The far side application of this developmental train is using cellphone technology to modulate behavioral patterns. Although wouldn't work as much with immigrants because they grew up under different behavioral metrics. So you would have to modify the interference to match the change in metric. Eventually you would get a society that is 99.99% under control without direct state application. However, most of the support for today's society seems to be the moral hazards and the demand caused by them. So... what would you do with all the shrinks, cops, storm troopers and judges if you went that route?

    March 30, 2010 at 22:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. edmundbukeson

    Yes it can! Just hold a gold coin up to Bernanke's head.

    March 30, 2010 at 23:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Tom

    How about can tinnitus be cured magnetically?

    March 30, 2010 at 23:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Aaron Hunyady

    So... if you use this technique on people reading this article, will they say that the article's title is ethical journalism?

    March 30, 2010 at 23:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. jason

    oh! is this why people walking around chatting on cell phones act like complete morons.

    March 30, 2010 at 23:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Adam

    Bull Honky.

    March 30, 2010 at 23:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Scarlett

    Just what we need, scientists trying to find a way to alter our morality. I see absolutely no possibility of this knowledge ever being used in a nefarious way ...

    March 30, 2010 at 23:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Bryan

    This is the problem i have with some psychological research. It takes reality and seemingly places it in some Hitchcockian nether world.

    If Grace is poisoning her friend, she will stand with her friend to see the drug take effect.

    Now, if Grace is standing by her friend, and her friend is fine, she will have a reaction to this.

    If you try to kill someone and you fail, certainly no harm, no foul.

    But, you put poison in someones coffee, it's going to affect them in some way. May not kill them, but does something to them, correct?

    I can't even contemplate the motivation behind wanting to poison a friend, but, I can say if I ever did, it would look nothing like this experiment.

    March 31, 2010 at 00:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Samuel Prime

    Have there been studies that show how magnetism in the brain, or generally neurological processes - possibly influenced by external agents - can affect how we study and observe phenomenon? So therefore, could scientific undertaking depend on the brain's internal structure as affected by external forces?

    March 31, 2010 at 00:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Joe Hendrix

    You people are retarded. You start off with this great theory of how science has given a dramatic outcome for morality and the outcome has pointed to something scientific and then you turn around (like most articles like this do) and say that this experiment is modest and that it is still very difficult to pin down which part of the brain is really responsible for morality. It's as if your entire story was irrelevant. Which having to give the truth behind the study, it is.

    March 31, 2010 at 00:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Honest George

    I've run across reference to this idea of magnetism affecting the mind and wondered why the researchers hadn't approached the telephone company workers that spent 8 hours daily in a closed environment surrounded by thousands of electro-magnetic relays. There are very few of the old step-by-step telephone offices still in service but I believe that there still are a few.

    March 31, 2010 at 00:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Andacar

    Hooray! If this is true, it's another brilliant triumph for science. Now we really can put the electrode in people and make them jump, make them trump years of hard won moral judgments, dance on a string. We can eliminate kindness, compassion, love and any other disagreeable emotion with just a few volts of electricity. Ah, progress! God bless America (oh wait, we proved he doesn't exist already...)

    March 31, 2010 at 01:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. James Baker

    The results of this study are not going to surprise those of us who know people that have suffered closed head injuries involving trauma to the right temporo-parietal portion of the brain. Those who suffer such injuries sometimes are diagnosed with "frontal lobe syndrome" and often suffer impaired judgment overall. Moreover, they seem to lose their moral compass and behave in a manner totally alien to their pre-morbid personality.

    March 31, 2010 at 01:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Charles Edward Strother III

    Despite the intrigue of advances in knowledge it is just that which brings us closer to mind control misuse technology based on these studies. I become frightened from this type of research and further it should be obvious to the researchers that their finding will be misused as have all scientific discoveries. Perhaps its better not to delve into the mind in this area. Perhaps we bring ourselves closer to harm then good. Anybody read Shock Doctrine by Kliene?

    March 31, 2010 at 01:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. John Bailo

    Based on brain maps of teens and psychopaths, both of whom are missing the development of "judgement centers" that govern things like morality, I would say this is very valid research, since it's using an electric field to block the same center in a functioning adult.

    March 31, 2010 at 01:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. paul

    hmm.. now that morality can be considered a science, does that make "god" more or less relevant in our daily lives? and even if our moral judgement can be controlled, does that make our ethical philosophy just as flimsy? science seems to add more rather than less confusion in these areas of our lives

    March 31, 2010 at 01:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. joe

    don't let the tin hat crowd see this.. they'll be switching brain defense materials...

    March 31, 2010 at 02:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Professor314

    Nice to see they still experiment on graduate students.

    March 31, 2010 at 02:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. W

    Morality, a human brain function, is affected by manipulating the brain?

    i'm shocked. Next they'll tell me if you poke someone in the eye out it affects their vision.

    March 31, 2010 at 02:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. John

    Wow, how could someone see it as morally permissable to attempting to kill someone, yet fail and for the outcome to be neutral? Attempted murder is a crime. Another issue in this article is that using magnetic stimulation can impact our ability to be moral people, which goes against the whole idea of innate good or innate evil.


    March 31, 2010 at 03:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. HaywoodJ

    The ethics of the attempted tampering of an individual's internal rule of law is a moot issue.

    This article could have better explained what the terms of the research are. Are the researches seeking to discover the participant's internal truths regarding the individual committing the act, the judgement passed upon the individual committing the act based on the resulting outcome, or which is more important for the participants, the intention or the outcome? Or maybe they were looking for just a change in response, which could be due to factors regarding preparation up to the measurement.

    To say that peoples morals are static throughout their lives would be a farce, just look to any movie, such as "Falling Down", in which an ordinary person is changed by the stress in his life. He commits many violent acts he would not have otherwise, a real "simmering pot waiting to boil over."

    March 31, 2010 at 04:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. M

    I can't really think of a good reason for such a study, except for those who embrace the concept of the attempted manipulation of others.

    March 31, 2010 at 05:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Wayne from Belleville, Ontario, Canada

    I can entirely understand how this is possible.

    In fact if you consider what a magnetic pole reversal would do to the earth, and its inhabitants.

    Could it effect people in such a way as to become very violent and aggressive? Could it cause all manner of geophysical activity, such as earthquakes, and volcanoes?

    The end of days perhaps caused by a polar shift, which its prelude is climate change.

    Sounds a little wacky, but if all things are considered, than perhaps there is something to all these prophecies.

    Considering that the Mayans in their calendar have an understanding of the 27,000 year cycle the earth goes through with the wobble, known as progression, than perhaps humans have an understanding that can only come from a much longer history than we have ever imagined.

    Then again... who knows?

    March 31, 2010 at 05:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Dr Bill Toth

    Machiavelli is alive!

    March 31, 2010 at 06:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Mark B

    I think you are using the word morality incorrectly here. The people are "changing" their decisions based upon interpersonal ethics, not some universal morality. It is a serious mistake of syntax and brings into the argument idea's which will only confuse and give credence to the people who would dismiss this type of research for non-scientific reasons.

    March 31, 2010 at 07:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. CitizenJP

    Morality is a self-preserving mechanism of an individual or society. The same individual that behaves morally while under watch may behave immorally while no one is watching. Also, it is greatly affected by the environment we live in. For example, "stoning someone to death" is considered a moral act in some societies, where as it would be considered grossly immoral in others. "Widow burning" used to be considered moral in some society as well. Some people consider "capital punishment" as moral too. Morality is a product of the mind and does not have any absolute existence and therefore is subject to change due to external factors.

    March 31, 2010 at 07:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Greg

    Can't morality really be defined as a judgement by other people if they would like the same action done to them? That's why morality can be a difficult subject due to the viewpoints of people, and their desire for the action in question to be done to them or for them. (i.e. is it moral for someone to hit another? Could depend on if that person is protecting you from someone, or assaulting a loved one.) In this definition, maybe the part of the brain described in the article doesn't deal with "morality" as much as it deals with probabilities of multiple trials. For instance, a person can put as much of an inert powder in my drink as she'd like, it wouldn't be immoral, but the probability that (based on her intent) she will continue to place an inert powder in my drink and not switch to a poisonous powder is quite low. I would not like to be poisoned, therefore I deem her actions immoral.

    March 31, 2010 at 07:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Patrick

    Descartes, you most certainly were in error. Mind and body ARE the same.

    March 31, 2010 at 07:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Robin Cooper

    What would be nice is to compare the brain activity with other primates that have empathy (a form of morality).

    “The researchers reported in 1964 in the American Journal of Psychiatry that rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered food to themselves if doing so gave a shock to a companion. One monkey stopped pulling the chain for 12 days after witness¬ing another monkey receive a shock. Those primates were literally starving themselves to avoid shocking another animal." http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/greatergood/archive/2005fallwinter/FallWinter0506_deWaal.pdf

    March 31, 2010 at 07:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Mark

    20 participants is not a statistically valid sample size.

    March 31, 2010 at 08:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Sean

    Could people exposed to MRI have their morality affected? I underwent an experimental 7-T MRI 2 years ago which is about 3 times stronger than a typical MRI. Could there be lasting effects?

    March 31, 2010 at 08:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Jonathan

    NeuroPsychology is fascinating science, but I have my doubts as to it's ability to help govern morality.

    March 31, 2010 at 08:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. BobH

    Our moral judgment comes from our conscience (con=with, science=knowledge). When we do something wrong we do it "with knowledge that it is wrong. This is God given and not merely a natural result of brain chemistry. What length will we go in effort to exclude God from everything?

    March 31, 2010 at 08:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Joe MacDonald

    This question & article is completely crazy. The morality of something is not a changing truth. It is based on sound ethics & logic. To say otherwise would be like changing laws of mathematics.

    People's opinion, the laws, religion, science may change over time when it comes to moral questions, but the moral truths remain the same...unless you are a relativist, which by definition alone contradicts itself.

    The core moral principles remain the same, however when certain circumstances or intentions play into the mix, the moral justification can change. However this should not be decided by opinion, religion, science, law, or any other discipline, other than philosophy of ethics and logic. There is a distinction between a person's morals and asking what is moral or morally justifiable...the two are not the same. One is based on changing views which is more relativistic, the other is based on absolute truths that are unchanging.

    March 31, 2010 at 08:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. El Gordo

    Our brains are ourselves. Change brain chemistry and you change both thought and feeling. People with behavioral problems have brain problems.

    The descriptions of human nature that we inherited from the past – from our religions and our philosophers – were completely wrong. The concepts that we use to describe the inner workings of our minds – will power, character, determination, etc. – are complete nonsense.

    March 31, 2010 at 08:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Trylon

    Elizabeth: This entire line of research is the first of two terrible mistakes. The second is bringing this kind of flawed, nonscientific reasoning to the attention of the general public. Children raised on computer-graphic models have gained control of the laboratories. That medium is in danger of becoming the scientific message.

    Interpretations for hard science like physics and astronomy can probably benefit, but not the investigation of the brain – and whatever its involvement is with "mind". There, it should remain a clinical tool. Have you ever seen a FORM, developed by a long forgotten CLERK, drive the entire process of some domain? Suggest you review the final opus of famous neurosurgeon, Wilder Penfield for an example of the humility necessary to avoid hubris in neuroscience.

    March 31, 2010 at 08:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Fran

    Would this allow us to do away with the death penalty?

    I've always said that people who commit terrible crimes are not 'evil' but are sick individuals and that we have no right to take their lives. If life is sacred, then all life is sacred.

    Of course, I am human - not believing in the death penalty - no matter how bad the crime - is very difficult at times.

    March 31, 2010 at 08:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Doug

    I'm not sure what this tells us... If you (temporarily) scramble part of our brains that we make different decisions... Not really a surprise – it has to happen *somewhere* in our heads... And even if we know "where" in the brain where this happens... Well, that just says you don't want to have a stroke there. We haven't learned a thing about how these decisions work or what they're based on.

    Brain research like this is just lame science. 99% hype.

    March 31, 2010 at 08:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. vizi

    where do we come up with such stupid ideas .

    I mean this is all we can put money into researching such topics . Universities are really channelizing money in such experiments and the real medical experiments are starving of funding

    March 31, 2010 at 09:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. bahb3

    So we have no need for a soul. Can we get rid of religion now?

    March 31, 2010 at 09:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Jim Bob

    Maybe this can reform the vastly immoral countries of North Korea and Iran.

    March 31, 2010 at 09:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Jack Bauer

    All things considered, I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

    March 31, 2010 at 09:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Phil

    I wonder if this has anything to do with a full moon and how people tend to get a little crazy? The moon does exert more magnetic force...?

    March 31, 2010 at 09:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Kari

    I wonder... and I'm no scientist as I'm sure my next typed words will prove... I wonder what the Earth's changing magnetic field does to our perceptions of morality.. or even reality. Would it have an effect? I've read that the magnetic field protecting out planet from solar radiation has been gradually declining... possibly leading up to a future reversal of the poles... Does this shift also effect our ways of thinking and judging?
    That's my deep thought for the day. Now back to work I go.

    March 31, 2010 at 09:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. hmmm...

    Interesting...the more one looks at our brain the more one has wonder...who..or what programmed it? Then, of course, Darwin might say that all people who lacked a certain moral standard were killed off. And I would ask, By whom? The more moral of us? Bottom line is who will determine morality? Who will decide whoch of us is morally lacking and for what reasons. If this doesn't scare anyone to put Chance, or intelligent design in the hands of humans (knowing what we do about each other) than perhaps what God gave us- freedom of choice- is soon to be gone to live freely under the world of ...who ...???

    March 31, 2010 at 09:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Anthony W. Yochmann

    It is unfortunate that Dr. Gregory Berns describes it as a "downside" of a study that shows that brain damage to a specific brain region only showed a "somewhat modest" impairment of moral judgment. Would The doctor be more pleased if the effect was more pronounced? Perhaps, if the study was more successful there would be malevolent applications available to unscrupulous government bodies around the globe. This appears very interesting research from an intellectual viewpoint, but a frightening one from an ethical perspective.

    March 31, 2010 at 09:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. moral evolver

    Morality doesn't have to evolve in a system where the immoral are killed; it can be a result of something more subtle. If you are more likely to succeed when your brothers, sisters, and parents are moral, you can carry genes for morality into the next generation, even if actually having them is not particularly beneficial.

    March 31, 2010 at 10:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Bubba

    Sounds like the actual question should be "are certain behaviors caused by damage to specific brain areas?" Maybe some of these football players wouldn't act like sharks if they hadn't been hit in the head so often. Maybe soccer players shouldn't 'head' the ball so much?

    March 31, 2010 at 10:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Kari

    Oh my.. had no idea what was going to happen when i checked to notify me of follow-up comments.. INBOX EXPLOSION!!! MUST UNSUBSCRIBE!!!

    March 31, 2010 at 10:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. outofleftfield

    Interesting discovery and interesting remark. Let's try this one on for size. In reality there is no such thing as morals at least as we define them. Morals: of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong. I was born in America and based on my geopolitical, religion base, and geography most of my morals where feed to me in school or by my parents. None of it is based on my own moral compass although that plays into it to it is however, mostly subjective in nature. Morals as we know them are more akin to collective opinions. If I was raised in another country my deeply held morals would be either radically different or slightly to the left or right depending on the influencing factors of my upbringing and my own experiences which are very limited. My ideas of right and wrong while appearing to be inline with my fellows is subjective too based on my experiences with whatever variables I'm judging in the moment . A rich man "enhances" his ethics and morals to fit his addiction to money and power and sleeps well at night with the firmly held belief that he is providing for his life and his family. The man he imposes this power over and who suffers the imbalance of his greed finds this rich man to be evil and morally corrupt. Both are right in their beliefs and both will violently protect them because they believe they are morally right in their pursuit of happiness and both have no morals at all because they are subjective and not technically true. There is real good and real evil but it take many years of study of a different kind to really understand what they are. Morals are another tool for manipulation of the masses or the imposition of the strong against the weak.
    On a side note isn't it interesting to see that outside forces (magnetism) can alter something most would feel is immutable.

    Trust nothing and verify everything and one will be closer to the truth

    March 31, 2010 at 10:36 | Report abuse | Reply
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