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. Hank Castello

    outofleftfield makes good points, but overlooks a potentially greater factor. Previous research has shown that we are genetically predisposed to left or right political leanings, having to do with chemical makeup of our brains.

    Certainly political leanings are related to morals. But, hey – maybe it's the flouride in our water that has created all our right-wing crazies? 🙂

    March 31, 2010 at 12:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Don

    Isn't this like the movie "A Clockwork's Orange"? Seems like it ...

    March 31, 2010 at 12:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. independent

    It would seem the study suggests that brain functioning, or disfunctioning, affect whether or not people believe that the end justifies the means.

    That is interesting. It doesn't affect morality, create or destroy it. Just how it is evaluated.

    March 31, 2010 at 12:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Watching and Amused

    I don't know whether it's more frightening or funny that people seem to believe that ethics/morality are "God-given" and constant across every society. If so, I have to wonder if they ever sat through an ethics or a logic class.

    I must be the only person commenting who ever read it, but "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" by Oliver Sacks is a great read on people who suffered injury to different regions of the brain – and the incredible effects these injuries had on their lives.

    Wish American society was more educated and literate – rather than just loud and obnoxious.

    March 31, 2010 at 13:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Allan

    And so who is to judge what is moral and what is not moral?

    I personally think that there are people who consider themselves "religious," that I consider to be immoral in their judgments.

    This can be like opening a can of worms.

    March 31, 2010 at 13:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Andy

    Yes, how are the researchers defining morality? I would interpret the findings to mean, "Do whatever you want and if your evil intentions fail, then you have behaved morally." It makes no sense at all... harmful intentions toward others is actually the definition of IMMORALITY.
    This is taking the responsibility for civilized behavior away from the individual & his free will. Rewrite the lab report using the correct terminology.
    Surprised this was at MIT. Sounds more like a gov't funded public high school project that is being dramatized to prove that tax dollars are not only for lining the politicians' pockets.
    CNN, lemme guess. Are you just trying to see if we're awake? Job security for some VP's nephew who just dropped out of college? Ridiculous.

    March 31, 2010 at 13:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Austringer

    This is incredibly relevant research, particularly when placed in context with the "wireless electricity" being developed–which converts electricity into electromagnetic waves and then back again at the source. I hope there's additional research into this area and that the FDA is paying attention should the wireless electricity product ever become efficient enough to be commercialized.

    March 31, 2010 at 13:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. kabelme

    Just as we inherit characteristics and tendencies from our physical parents, much of our moral compass comes from our spiritual creator, God. Science will forever be confounded as to the origin of morals, virtues, etc. until they recognize that a significant componant of the human make up is beyond the scope of their measuring instruments.

    March 31, 2010 at 13:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. curious

    Hmm... I wonder if those new full body scanners at the airports have any magnets in them?

    March 31, 2010 at 13:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. JOrtiz

    The study was run on 20 undergraduates– and has not been duplicated by anyone else. And the reporter decided to run the story?

    Journalistic standards are slipping.

    March 31, 2010 at 13:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. soonia

    This is really so cool, conservaties should be required to take this therapy in order to apply for health insurance benefits under the new law

    March 31, 2010 at 13:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Rob

    @ Joe Hendrix, you obviously don't work with research at all. It is 99.99% impossible to prove causality with research of this nature. That doesn't make the research stupid or uninteresting. In fact, it provokes thought and probably enjoyable consumption for most people with half a brain. Does that mean people have to take it as fact? No. I'd like to see you go out and do a non-"modest" study. Tell me your plan for doing one, I want to see it. It would be easier to debunk than Sarah Palin's political views.

    March 31, 2010 at 13:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Winston

    Maybe this is what LOST is about?

    March 31, 2010 at 13:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. IanC

    This article is misleading. Transcranial magnetic stimulation has been used for a while to study the brain. You can use it to temporarily knock down activity in ANY local region of the brain, not just this "morality center."

    Magnetism here is just the tool that led to this discovery, and doesn't have any practical bearing on morality function.

    March 31, 2010 at 13:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Jeff Wragg

    Everyone – Transcranial stimulation uses extremely strong, pulsed magnetic fields. This is orders of magnitude away from the magnetic fields most of you are talking about. I believe the effect here is due to interference with neurotransmitters due to the induced electrical currents in the brain that the VERY strong, pulsed magnetic fields causes.

    March 31, 2010 at 13:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Prodinger

    Wasn´t this in an episode of Fringe?? Jaja. This is not good. Why would you want to control morality? Not only is it subjective, but the moment we sucumb to technology and science to control our us, we forsake free will, and become machines.

    March 31, 2010 at 13:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Paul

    The most this shows is that people's moral decisions can be changed by magnetism not that morality is changed by magnetism. One wouldn't say that mathematics changes if people's mathematical decisions changed when a magnet disrupted their brain activity.

    March 31, 2010 at 13:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. bill mcmasters

    if people under the influence of something like transcranial magnetic stimulation might tolerate, condone, or embrace an immoral action if the outcome is perceived as neutral, what immoral action might they be willing to encourage or even participate in if they are persuaded by the powers that be that the outcome will be for the greater good? even without t.m.s., history is rife with such phenomena. perhaps research like this is the beginning of a more scientifically comprehensive system of ethics. but you don't need to be a conspiracy buff to bet on the inevitability that governments and other organizations will be interested how such research could be applied to enhancing their own influence and control. perhaps the road to hell IS paved with transcranial magnetic stimulation!

    March 31, 2010 at 13:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Kevin

    Super small study, without assurances that the methodology was double-blind: this is a story about a test run for a study that might happen later.

    Even as stated, the study only suggests that people with their heads strapped to magnets will react differently to hypothetical Agatha Christie plot twists. Is there a baseline fMRI to compare actual moral reasoning with reaction to fictional hijinks, and if so, was it used to verify the affected region was targeted?

    All that said: is the object of the study to ask whether brain damage, albeit temporary and magnetically-induced, can affect cognition? Well, duh.

    March 31, 2010 at 13:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. veggiedude

    I always wondered why I became a vegetarian for ethical reasons thirty two years ago. It's the way my brain is structured. Now, how can I make others like me? Where to put the magnets?

    March 31, 2010 at 13:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. KamaraSune

    And who said there was nothing to those tinfoil hats! 😛

    March 31, 2010 at 14:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. xavixavier

    If they had asked me they would had save a lot of time. Of Course, and if we make it strong enough, we can even fry their brains and insure they do not take any decisions.

    March 31, 2010 at 14:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Sebastian293

    We are seriously discussing and reporting on a research project with 20 subjects?

    Really cnn... really??

    March 31, 2010 at 14:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. freedomforever

    People should make choices based on LOGIC not EMOTIONS! Emotions only mess up the works and slow progress.

    March 31, 2010 at 14:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. In responce to "AZEZEL"

    In response to Azezel. I don’t think you understand the study as the article points out. You are talking about Immigrants from different cultures and the study is dealing with morality issues. This is not the same thing.
    An Indian in India will say it’s wrong to steal or kill. This moral question if asked by most people in US, UK, Japan or Jordan will be answered in the same manner. They will all say it’s morally wrong.
    This is what the study is dealing with, a morality issue. Immigrants have the same morals too.

    I think you are confused.

    March 31, 2010 at 14:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Michael

    Well moral to Christians, means what God likes, that is good morals. Immoral therefore is wrong.
    Life has it that those who do wrong are wronged, and those who do good, are blessed.
    Now, even bad things happen to good people, and that is because there is an enemy who wants us to feel that God is bad.
    In general, those who do good, come out better in the end.
    So, in terms of going to judgement, who would be guilty if one person broke the law under the influence of another one? The one who broke the law would be, and the other via association.
    If a person knew that such a technology made them make wrong choices, they are responsable for the outcome.

    March 31, 2010 at 14:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Pete

    It would be more useful to be able to turn on morality than to turn it off as in this experiment. Strap on an unremovable morality hat on all the bankers and politicians.

    March 31, 2010 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. OrionStyles

    Still not even close to a cure. It is entirely possible that the idea you receive under "enhanced morality" is still a VERY bad one.

    Let's look closer to where the real problem is with our societal outlook.

    eg: Libet's 1/2 second delay
    The best case scenario for free will is that you can only decide to stop an action from being carried out once it rises to conscious thought. You don't get to decide what rises up to conscious thought.

    Pretty much every law and societal value comes from the incorrect assumption that you pick what ideas rise into conscious thought. This is a complete fallacy, you do not. It takes a 1/2 second for the brain to do work and pop something into your conscious mind, and this is based solely on your life's personal experience up to that point. The resulting reality is that you have the possibility of not having any "good" ideas rise to conscious thought at all for any given situation based on what you have experienced in your life.

    Given that positive incentive is the key motivating factor for any behaviour that does rise up to consciousness (to be clear, what exactly an individual's experience, and thus their brain's pattern recognition of "positive incentive" varies drastically!) is it any wonder we still live in a hell hole when you step back and look at the systems we have created?

    I would submit that this experiment could be easily undermined, scientifically, by intentionally allowing what an individual perceives as a "bad idea" to be carried out, rather then consciously vetoed. The outcome can then be analyzed in retrospect.

    For example, the fun of understanding how consciousness works is that you can intentionally refrain yourself from vetoing a conscious impulse you belive is "bad" and allow it to be carried out. Then, if you then observe a positive result, you have skewed what your brain recognizes as "positive incentive".

    Societal norms be damned, we are so fundementally ignorant about ourselves and the world around us that we have a monumental task ahead of us if we want to create a world that has any semblance of fairness.

    The universe sends enough crap our way, we don't need to help out with our mass ignorance.

    March 31, 2010 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. publius enigma

    Ive always known about magnetic induction, but never thought you could induce currents in the body. Magnetic induction implies a coil, I think. Where is the analogous coil defined in the brain? Is this for real? Im doubtful that the electronics part would work.

    March 31, 2010 at 14:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. MrpoliceMan

    We are surrounded by magnetic lines of flux created by the north and south pole.

    March 31, 2010 at 14:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Simon

    I don't think whoever wrote this article knows what the definition of morality is. Morals exist because not all people can judge them for themselves what is right or wrong. This experiment doesn't have anything to do with morality. It has to do with how the brain processes anticipated events. A brain that sees future intent as irrelevant will not consider intent in determining right or wrong. A brain that adequately processes intent, will determine that intent is the only true gauge of right or wrong. The whole concept of law and morality is based on not relying on individuals to determine right or wrong.

    March 31, 2010 at 14:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. David

    Can headlines be more misleading?

    Hyperbole like this is a good way to completely confuse people about what's going on and lead to others worrying about magnets in their homes ... when there is absolutely no health issue.

    March 31, 2010 at 14:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Adam

    Magnetic nerve stimulation is certainly nothing new as it has been used therapeutically in the path as both an alternative to shock therapy and as a method to improve healing response in fractured limbs.
    What would be nice is if they stated the magnetic field intensity that was required to generate this response. It is unlikely that such an effect would be generated by the meager output of something such as a cell phone or electromagnetic relay in a telephone station (especially considering a)the low voltage being used and b)telephones carry DC voltage not AC and if these are DC relays you are referring to, I doubt a standing magnetic wave would do much of anything to induce current past its initial transient step).
    It's amazing how easily an article with little explaination of a theory which is difficult to test can get people riled up and making consipiracy theories.

    As a side note, has anyone else noticed the little happy face in the bottom left corner of this page? what's up with that?

    March 31, 2010 at 14:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. AdrmlAckbar

    A sample size of 20 does not generalizability make.

    March 31, 2010 at 14:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Tom

    Who cares? Put that money toward curing Cancer or maybe doctors make more money with the drugs used to treat Cancer not cure it.
    Remember Polio, hw must research money was lost when that was cured!!! Think about it!!!!!

    March 31, 2010 at 14:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. jonmet

    The study is irrelevant due to the sample size and of course the basic premise – the only thing with more crap in it is the comment from Orion Styles – kind of a George Will wannabe

    March 31, 2010 at 15:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. athena

    "Curious" i was kinda wondering the same thing haha
    but honestly this is kind of interesting in an odd sort of sense. so many different views that it's hard to agree or disagree on something. Do we need to improve morality? Do we need to not let Studies as such overpower our choices?
    i think we all should look at pros and cons... although i also agree that the whole "Grace" thing did not seem as much reality as it could have been. if they really wanted to prove more of something to someone then they should have used a different example then just her not having a reaction to putting poison is someone's coffee and seeing if they live or die... that just seemed un-interesting to me personally.

    March 31, 2010 at 15:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Sonny

    Wow, look at all these comments. Does anyone of you really read the article? The magnetic changes is altering people's moral conclusion based on the other person's intention or actual outcome of the action. It doesn't change people's morality. In short, do people judge others based on speculation or based on fact.

    Of couse, the new article has to give itself a controversial title to attract people's attention. Sadly, it only attract people to read the title and ignore the body of the article. May be someone should do a research on how a title in an article provide basis for bias.

    March 31, 2010 at 15:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Chemo007

    This technology is in effect by the US military in a far more advanced stage. It is being applied on chosen individuals without their consent for research purposes. In fact, I know one person who swears he has been used a as guinea pig for the last 6 1/2 years! The future is now!

    March 31, 2010 at 15:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Edwin


    March 31, 2010 at 15:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. More For Me

    Start with rich people. They, most likely, are the best at turning off the morality in their brains.

    March 31, 2010 at 15:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. jose

    jason March 30th, 2010 23:31 ET

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

    Instead of walking, driving. Thats why you cant drive and talk on cellphone at the same time.

    March 31, 2010 at 15:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Jesse J.

    But, Sweetheart! I didn't mean to have that affair! It's just that I got too close to all those refrigerator magnets in the kitchen, and..........and..................I just couldn't help myself!

    March 31, 2010 at 15:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Dave

    lets just say no and be done. The Nazis tried some of this, might take a while to find it and its not on the web but it happened. You are who/what you are because of your genes; changing that is a choice and if you morally don't care.............

    March 31, 2010 at 15:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. question

    What would Socrates ask about this?

    March 31, 2010 at 16:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Mildred

    Why would any researcher subject human beings to brain damage however slight? We know very little about brain function – I would suggest that the researchers themselves might wish to review their own morality.

    March 31, 2010 at 16:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Ruth, Phoenix

    If you think you're going to "magnetically " force people into having improved morality, good luck. You may be able to make them more immoral than they already are (something I also seriously doubt), but isn't that kind of a Hannibal Lechter thing?

    Or maybe you just want them focusing on your "research..."

    March 31, 2010 at 16:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Jens

    Did everyone ignore Mark's comment:

    "20 participants is not a statistically valid sample size."

    Look at all this discussion and projects based on insufficient data. Plus we don't know how this experiment was run. Were there controls?

    Why waste your time jumping to conclusions when this study offers no evidence for any conclusion?

    March 31, 2010 at 16:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Jose Morales

    Who gives a crap about morality. We should be free and not prisoners by all these laws regarding morality or anything else. All they do is take away our freedoms. This will have to be a price that everyone must pay if you want to live in a free society. It is incredible how most Americans think they are free. It is a JOKE...

    March 31, 2010 at 16:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. and the

    wow. this article sure brought some creeps out of the woodwork. To those who post that they don't understand the point of such research etc... maybe you should accept that what you say is true rather than go on to bash it as irrelevant. It really gives me a kick to see someone declare "I do not understand this! But it's bad!"

    March 31, 2010 at 16:29 | Report abuse | Reply
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