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. Bruce Anderson

    There is historical facts as I have found through out history that shows electromagnetic mentail health affects, You have the natural ones that comes from th earth and magnetic storms moon cycles an as well the sun. There are ones called things like Sun downers. I am writing a book about the effects of such things.


    Dave March 31st, 2010 15:58 ET

    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


    Yes he is right...it was called the Signal Servant, we have Cell phones because of it.

    Read the History behind Willow brook State School was built in the 1930’s in Staten Island, NY to care for individuals with mental retardation and developmental disabilities. It did not receive its first residents, however, until after World War II. A combination of rising placements, budget cuts, ignorance, arrogance and indifference, created notorious conditions at Willow brook. By 1965, with over 6,000 residents in an institution planned for just 4,000, Senator Robert Kennedy was calling Willow brook a “snake pit.” In November 1971, The State Island Advance published a series of articles detailing the horrible conditions at the school. Following these articles, in January 1972, Geraldo Rivera, the television reporter, began a series of programs that shook the conscience of New York State and the nation and inspired parents and others to take legal action. The end result was the signing of a consent judgment in federal court in 1975. Willow brook finally closed its doors in 1987.
    Those people that ran that place Was Nationalistic Democrats, many was brought from overseas from places in Germany Russia and so many had been a part of medical experiments as like Cutting off the tops of head to see what worked with pain relief etc, many was used to create the very Mind sleepers and use of EMF an EMP Warfare. That is being used in many communist anti American Countries, as our leadership in the United States calls people Retards and use Cell Phone. As they also seek to use this S chip implants, the last time this kind of crap was left to run amuck World War two took place 2 nukes was dropped 15 kilotons each was drop and Millions died to stop it all then the trails of Nuremberg Germany came and went this is not funny not funny at all.

    March 31, 2010 at 16:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Michael

    In Philosophy 101 we learned about a school of thought which said any advance in technology or medicine will always be used for a military application before it's used to help anyone. Perhaps the soldier of the future will have their morality centers temporarily turned off via their helmet when in battle.

    March 31, 2010 at 16:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Julie

    So should I be worried that there are 20 undergrads walking around thinking it's okay to put poison in someones coffee?

    Pretty cool/scary news though. It'd be better if they could change everyone's morality to the "good" side. But then we'd all have to get in a huge debate about right vs wrong.

    March 31, 2010 at 16:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Marc

    People, the point of the experiment isn't necessarily to learn how to alter someone's moral compass at will; it's to study the effect that damage / interference to that part of the brain has on someone. This knowledge, in turn, can help explain some criminal and other behaviors and possibly lead to corrective action.

    Small steps...

    March 31, 2010 at 16:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Tiger

    Elin, it was the magnets.

    March 31, 2010 at 16:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Dr. C. Philip Chacko

    When God is not in cotrol of a person's inner being morality can change according to the situation. Such situation can be justified based on the intention of an action or by the outcome of it. So, I believe morality can be manipulated by artifical external forces.

    Morality should not be assocaited with God. God is greater than morality.

    March 31, 2010 at 16:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Michael

    Obviously the brain controls everything and external stimulus can affect this. This doesn't strike me as very helpful.

    March 31, 2010 at 17:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. J.Stark

    I wonder what the effects of some hefty magnetic instruments actually already in hospitals do to folks who work around them consistently, MRI machines.

    March 31, 2010 at 17:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. big bang or yin-yang

    The article doesn't even need to exist when the comments are more interesting.

    March 31, 2010 at 17:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. big bang or yin-yang

    I'm sorry, I meant to clearly state that this is a poor excuse for an article, I compare it's validity to iReport.

    March 31, 2010 at 17:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. David F Pawlowski

    This line of inquiry raises some very interesting possibilities. For years the Debunker/Skeptic cults of personality have smuggly claimed victory that no proof has been given that human beings are effected by the phase of the moon. Having challenged this seem folks repeatedly to look at the possibility that human beings are subject to the same electromagnetic fields as birds who are known to exploit the iron oxide particles in their brains to help orient themselves for long distance traveling independent of heavy overcast. Similar anecdotes involving birds becoming confused and losing their way during times when geomagnetic activity is at a high point (e.g. Solar cycle activity; Coronal mass ejections, extreme auroral events) beg the question could humans also be affected in similar ways especially with those who are susceptible to neurological stimulation or have pre-existing weakness or undiagnosed condition. Begs the question, could the phase of the moon known to contribute to earth's magnetic field in subtle ways be the root cause for the ~28 day circadian cycle known to humans (e.g menarche). Inquiring minds, now closed minded debunker-skepti-tards want to know.

    March 31, 2010 at 17:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Alex

    We know morality is 'created' in a person's brain and in some people more than others.

    We also know morality can be affected by external imputs that stimulate that part of the brain that is responsible for moral decisions.

    WoW is a perfect example of electronic energy being converted to visual stimulant and altering the ethical and moral judgements of people.

    Magnetic energy should be able to manipulate the same areas of the brain directly and remove the hours and hours of sensory stimulation required with archaic, mind-controlling video games.

    Now post...post...post....forget about you appointment, you must post before you go.

    March 31, 2010 at 17:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. veggiedude

    @Joe McDonald: "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."

    Maths is a universal truth – no matter where you go in the cosmos, it is still valid. Not so with morality. You can have two different cultures in the same country and both will tell you there morals are better than the other. In other words, morality is a human precept – not a universal truth.

    March 31, 2010 at 17:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. veggiedude

    Why are so many equating god with morality? To say that is to assume atheists lack any morality at all, which is absurd. I do not eat animals because it is immoral to me. I do not expect many of you to understand that, nor should I. It has nothing to do with a god. In fact, knowing that no morality exists in nature (unless you count 'survival of the fittest' as one) tell's all I need to know about the morality of a mythical god.

    March 31, 2010 at 17:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Sniffit

    Oh brother. This is just going to have the religio-fascist social conservatives arguing for government funds to be spent on placing electro-magnets all over the place...or claiming that people who use cell phones in their left ear are the agents of satan....kooky religio-fascists.

    March 31, 2010 at 17:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. john

    The article seems to miss some important key pieces of information.

    1.) Were the participants providing their answers only while the brain activity was being interrupted or soon thereafter?

    2.) Did they draw a conclusion on whether the effect upon decision making/evaluation permanent or temporary?

    3.) They applied this test to morality evaluation decisions. Did they explore/hypothesize other behavioral changes this action could have caused??

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

    The dog ate my homework!

    The magnets made me do it!

    I see dead people!

    March 31, 2010 at 17:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. JR Jake

    If 1 x = the energy required to to change the magnetism sufficiently enough that the thought process and brain function center of the brain dealing with morality; than 1/3200 x equals the amount to change the capillary structures between the brain functions. In other words, how much (negative) energy is required to completely rupture capillary beds and organ systems externally and internal to the patients? If the patient is comprised of + and 1 charges (Cl-Na, P, K, Mg, etc) and you change the polarity of energy entering the patient; what is the likelihood the patient will suffer far more extremes prior to a decision being made or not? You guys are delving into areas that will be our undoing.

    March 31, 2010 at 18:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Mark Fish

    A test involving 20 people is meaningless. Everybody in the scientific community knows this is meaningless. A test involving 20,000 people would be worth a serious look.

    March 31, 2010 at 18:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Totality

    Interesting study, though I admit that I'm extremely skeptical. Keep in mind that the sample size was only 20 people and the article specifically notes that the results were "somewhat modest." I would be fascinated to read the actual study.

    March 31, 2010 at 18:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. edmundburkeson

    We should line the halls of Congress with magnets beginning with Frank, Dodd, Waxman ... and that's only the beginning ... next the White House. Campaign pulpits shoud be made of the purest and most powerful magnets available. Be real ... magnets can't cure this disease – it's both genetic and volitional.

    March 31, 2010 at 18:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. D Moore

    Wow. I wonder if alcohol changes one's decision making?

    March 31, 2010 at 18:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Warren

    So it was a small effect seen in a study of only twenty subjects, with significant variables that were not controlled for. Give me a call when you actually have some science to report.

    March 31, 2010 at 18:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Sheila

    I do believe magnetism and electromagentic fields can incite violence and other changes that are contrary to one's personality and behavior. I am sensitive to EM fields (exposure causes headache and horrid aggression. I really have to be aware and use control), and one time I had an MRI and the machine was malfunctioning and I got more than my share dose of EM. I think I was electrocuted too, as there was something that happened that went through my head and I had burn marks across my face, and was in convulsions all that afternoon, the next day and the next day, non-stop.

    Anyway, before the MRI, I was a musician who loved the instrument I played. I also loved cats, and would never do harm to one. Immediately after the MRI, not only could I not see or find the door out of the waiting area, but other weird things happened to me over the course of the next few months to include suicidal/homocidal feelings, I no longer had an interest in music, absolutely developed violence towards cats, and many other issues.

    I need an MRI now, but after that experience I may be better off dying with my pain and problems than going through anything like that again !

    March 31, 2010 at 18:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Mr Dude

    Now we need to show that gravity can affect the brain so that
    we can prove that astrology is a real "science".

    March 31, 2010 at 18:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Brian

    Wonder if there is a correlation between lead poisoning and magnetism. Heard that lead poisoning dramatically affects the decision-making part of the brain.

    March 31, 2010 at 19:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Andrea

    I want to point out that this study really has nothing to do with magnetism. Transcranial magnetic stimulation creates an electrical disruption in a specific area of the brain, causing it to temporarily not work.

    This study's results suggest that moral decisions are affected by the right temporoparietal junction not working.

    You could get similar effects by removing the right temporoparietal junction or damaging it by a blow to the head–magnets are not important to this effect. Magnets are just the means used to create the temporary "knock-out" in this case.

    The title and opening lines of this article are misleading.

    March 31, 2010 at 19:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Nik

    The science is worth further exploration. if the process could alter the morality of specific categories of criminal such as a rapists or pediphiles.

    March 31, 2010 at 19:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. herman bekker

    I've got temporal epilepsy as result of a double vaccination against smallpox.For more than forty years med.spec. and docters could'nt find the reason and after a E.E.G. with nose electrodes they found out that it was real epilepsy and not a case of a nervous patient.
    When thunderstorms or strong change of normal temp or weather is
    underway,I can prognose it without knowing by news or otherwise when
    the change will come for I got to lay down on bed close the curtains and dim the lights out.It sounds strange but you got to believe me

    March 31, 2010 at 23:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. I like Ike!


    I would think that, the same area of the brain that determines "all conscious activity", is also responsible for more "complex moral reasoning" – it is all really part of the "same song", just a matter of volume! The ("moral" part), located in the area above the shoulders, "kicks in" when it is necessary to decide whether or not it is a "good song" or "bad song" and if one wants to hear any more of it! As quipped by "John Bailo", perhaps people like "teenagers and psychopaths", who are "not moral", may just be short on "electrical activity" in those "nervous areas" – as they say!

    Seriously though, as one of the implications of this article, I think ("technological authority" over the "individual") could be ultimately rationalized as a ("good" intention), in the same ("sense" that "life is a chance") but, "nature is not moral" as exampled in (Hitchcock's – "The Birds")! The concept of a
    (technologically controlled "Brave New World") would be plausible, as long as there was not a ("power outage" at "Jurassic Park") so, I think we should still be careful about "tampering with nature"!

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

    Great can we make women more primal like men? All for it.

    April 1, 2010 at 00:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Adam

    MRI operators aren't usually in the room when the device is operating. They can produce magnetic fields as high as 3 teslas. The modern rooms are constructed with a farraday cage embedded in the walls, etc to capture and disperse free magnetic fields. Also, the lighting etc, is DC and anything such as music that is fed to the patient to listen to is done so through an air system, rather than electrical/magnetic. When I got mine done, the only piece of metal not attached to something with me in the room was the brass key for the locker. The most dangerous part about an MRI isn't the effect of the fields on your brain, its the chance someone left something in the room that will become a projectile under the intense acceleration provided by the magnetic field. as seen here:

    These fields have no physical effect on the human body other than causing water molecules, etc to briefly align with the flux lines.
    However, there is a possibility of an inductive effect which is what has been studied here. If it was a very strong effect in something such as an MRI, you'd atleast be twitching or spazing in there.

    April 1, 2010 at 08:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Ken

    In the tests, what they did changed decisions to be more on the outcome as to the intention. That makes me wonder, could the direction of the magnetic field be changed such that they instead choose more based on the intention rather than the outcome? The example story would be Grace puts a powder in her friend's coffee that she thinks will help her friend with a migraine. But her friend has an allegeric reaction and dies. Could the field / brain be affected so the respondents think this is morally fine as Graces intention was good (ignoring the negative outcome)?

    April 1, 2010 at 10:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Simo Hayha

    Nothing surprising or new here. The use of electromagnetic fields to fire neurons has long been demonstrated for over a decade. That there is a center of the brain that will lower inhibitions has long been demonstrated for many decades. It's the area that makes us silly and stupid when we get drunk. All that was done is to use existing research to disrupt and stimulate this area.

    April 1, 2010 at 10:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Wayne Messer

    They have another modern technology it's called a lobotomy. How inane is this. They conducted a study on twenty college kids and the example was ludicrous.

    How else could you possibly respond to someone putting something in someone’s drink?

    I hope MIT isn’t wasting time on these kind of experiments or at the least they are a private college and aren’t wasting public funds.

    April 1, 2010 at 13:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Robert

    Quick! Someone check under Glen Beck's bed for a giant electromagnet.

    April 1, 2010 at 13:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Wayne Messer

    @Dr Bill Toth

    No not Machiavelli. P.T. Barnum

    April 1, 2010 at 14:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Samantha

    Just a thought, but why morality? Could it be that this study shows that the magnetism on this brain region effects survival instincts? The study shows that final judgement (with the magnet) is dependent on outcome, not intentions, which seems a primitive response. Who cares about intentions if I still survive, or punish that person because she caused death (even though she didn't mean to).

    Think about it. If that region of our brain was larger during our early human development than maybe all we went on was outcome. Our intention region maybe didn't even exist yet, or was very minor. Dogs don't know when you have bad intentions. They just know how we treat them, the outcome.

    In conclusion, is it possible that the electromagnet is stimulating that outcome region and allowing it to momentarily override the intention judgement region?

    April 1, 2010 at 14:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Andrea

    All of you who are saying that 20 is not a large enough sample size don't understand statistics. If the study reports an "effect" (which this study did) what they mean is a "statistically significant effect" (i.e. difference between the two groups' performances). Statistical significance is calculated using both the number of participants and the size of the differences observed between the groups.

    The researchers are reporting a statistically significant difference between the groups, therefore the argument that 20 isn't a large enough sample is invalid.

    April 1, 2010 at 20:02 | Report abuse | Reply
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