Left-Brain, Right-Brain For Moral Judgement?

We hear a lot about whether we are “left-brain” or “right-brain” people depending on our occupations and other activities. The cool analytical thinkers among us are the left-brainers while the artistic, creative types are the right-brainers. Of course, some of the time we make fools of ourselves and we could call ourselves “no-brainers”, or at least we feel like that, usually when we are battling in vain with some new software update.

The Guardian Improbable column  (1) drew my attention to a paper published last December by Cope et al in the Frontiers of Evolutionary Neuroscience in which they come up with the answer to an unexpected question, namely “what half of the brain do we reserve for processing immoral stimuli?”

My prejudices immediately went into overdrive, but of course, have zero validity when there are systematic experiments to pore over. They carried out three studies. The first two were based on reading statements with their heads in the big magnet and the third had pictures. Now not all the statements or picture were of immoral acts; some were neutral or there wouldn’t have been a benchmark.

In the first experiment, they had fifty 25-year old guys who were shown statements about them doing things with their sisters. These ranged from bad (like incest and murder) through gross to harmless. The second set had twenty-three 30-something men and women who had to judge whether the acts described were wrong or not. These covered a wider range of the type of issues that exercise many people in society currently. The picture group were back to the 25-year old age band, but were both men and women. The “naughty” things here did not include sexual immorality, but rather drinking and driving, house breaking and the like.

Well, they got a lot of colorful pictures and we very clearly just work with one hemisphere when we’re making judgments on other peoples moral behavior. Which side do I hear you ask? The left hemisphere is the one when we are making those snap character assessments of what that couple is doing in the back row of the movies.

Not surprising really I suppose as we are bringing our cold analytical judgment to bear. However, I’m left with wanting more. Which hemisphere are you exercising when you are practicing that immoral sexual licentiousness, drinking and driving, or maybe house breaking?

Maybe we’ll never know. It’s hard to indulge in those activities whilst wearing a large magnet.

  1. http://www.improbable.com/
  2. Cope et al, Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience, (2010)                                       doi:10.3389/fnevo.2010.00110

Leave a Reply