New Finding Offers Neurological Support for Adam Smith’s ‘Theories of Morality’
New finding offers neurological support for Adam Smith’s ‘theories of morality’
The part of the brain we use when engaging in egalitarian behavior may also be linked to a larger sense of morality, researchers have found. Their conclusions, which offer scientific support for Adam Smith’s theories of morality, are based on experimental research published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study, coming seven months after the start of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which has been aimed at addressing income inequality, was conducted by researchers from: New York University’s Wilf Family Department of Politics; the University of Toronto; the University of California, San Diego; the University of California, Davis; and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Previous scholarship has established that two areas of the brain are active when we behave in an egalitarian manner—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the insular cortex, which are two neurological regions previously shown to be related to social preferences such as altruism, reciprocity, fairness, and aversion to inequality. Less clear, however, is how these parts of the brain may also be connected to egalitarian behavior in a group setting.
To explore this possibility, the researchers conducted an experiment in which individuals played a game to gauge brain activity in decision-making. In the “random income game” participants in a group are randomly assigned a level of income and the group is assigned to one of three income distributions. Subjects are shown the income of all members of their group, including their own, on a computer screen. Individuals are then asked if they wish to pay a cost in order to increase or decrease the incomes of group members. Subjects are told they may keep the money they don’t give away to the others shown on their screen, so there is a strong incentive not to part with any of the money already allocated to them. Nonetheless, the researchers found that the study’s subjects frequently sought to reallocate resources so the money was more equally distributed among the group members.