Friday, April 8, 2011

The *shocking* truth of inward reflection

People say they won’t shock others for cash, but they do it anyway:

When faced with a thorny moral dilemma, what people say they would do and what people actually do are two very different things, a new study finds. In a hypothetical scenario, most people said they would never subject another person to a painful electric shock, just to make a little bit of money. But for people given a real-world choice, the sparks flew.

 Would you shock someone else for money?

The results, presented April 4 at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, serve as a reminder that hypothetical scenarios don’t capture the complexities of real decisions.

Morality studies in the lab almost always rely on asking participants to imagine how they’d behave in a certain situation, study coauthor Oriel FeldmanHall of Cambridge University said in her presentation. But these imagined situations are missing teeth: “Whatever you choose, it’s not going to happen,” she said.

But in FeldmanHall’s study, things actually happened. “There are real shocks and real money on the table,” she said. Subjects lying in an MRI scanner were given a choice: Either administer a painful electric shock to a person in another room and make one British pound (a little over a dollar and a half), or spare the other person the shock and forgo the money. Shocks were priced in a graded manner, so that the subject would earn less money for a light shock, and earn the whole pound for a severe shock. This same choice was given 20 times, and the person in the brain scanner could see a video of either the shockee’s hand jerk or both the hand jerk and the face grimace. (Although these shocks were real, they were pre-recorded.)

When researchers gave a separate group of people a purely hypothetical choice, about 64 percent said they wouldn’t ever deliver a shock — even a mild one — for money. Overall, people hypothetically judging what their actions would be netted only about four pounds on average.

But when there was cold, hard money involved, the data changed - a lot. A whopping 96 percent of people in the scanner chose to administer shocks for cash. “Three times as much money was kept in the real task,” FeldmanHall said. When participants saw only the hand of the person jerk as it got shocked, they chose to walk away with an “astonishing” 15.77 pounds on average out of a possible 20-pound windfall. The number dipped when participants saw both the hand and the face of the person receiving the shock: In these cases, people made off with an average of 11.55 pounds.

People grappling with the real moral dilemma — as opposed to people who had to choose in a hypothetical situation — had heightened activity in parts of the insula, a brain center thought to be involved in emotion, the study shows. FeldmanHall said that insula activity might represent a sort of visceral tension that’s going on in the body as a person pits the desire for money against the desire to not hurt someone. These visceral conflicts within a person seem to be missing in experiments with no real stakes, she said.

“My initial response is it’s a really Milgram-esque experiment, harkening back to where people are induced to do something bad to someone else,” said cognitive neuroscientist Tor Wager of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Stanley Milgram, a Stanford psychologist, famously compelled college students to administer painful electrical shocks to others.

Even though the findings are “a little bit chilling,” Wager says, “it’s important to know.” These kinds of studies can help scientists figure out how the brain dictates moral behavior. “There’s a real neuroscientific interest now in understanding the basis of compassion,” Wager says. “That’s something we are just starting to address scientifically, but it’s a critical frontier because it has such an impact on human life.”

I love this study both for what it represents and what it purports to represent.  On some scale, it indicates that humans are comfortable causing pain and suffering to other humans (provided there is a payout), but let’s be realistic – any of the test subjects would know that the shock recipients had agreed to be shocked, and it would only be a temporary and non-life threatening pain.  I feel that the study, as presented, wants the viewer to subconsciously extend the scale of the experiment, and assume that this means that most people have no problem hurting others as long as financial gain is possible – and while I do not doubt that there exist people of this sort, I think one has to ignore a host of other factors to draw that conclusion.  What really interests me about this study is not that people will shock others for profit, but that there is such a large difference between those who will shock others for profit, and those who admit it.

Now I’m not a heartless bastard (although some who responded to this post disagree), but I’m pretty sure that I’ll shock you for a pound.  Heck, I’ll shock you for a dollar.  But I’ll admit to it.  Why will so many administer the shock (96%) and yet so few (36%) admit to it?  Probably societal norms.  It’s probably also for the same reason that you can’t really play poker for no stakes – if you don’t have any vested interest in the game, someone will probably just go all in on the first hand and try to double up, because he's not taking it seriously.  If he stands to lose money, though, he will (or should; if someone’s just stupid or sucks at poker, I can’t help that) play in a more responsible manner.  Likewise, without a vested (read: financial) interest in self reflection, of course 2/3 of the people will say that they won’t shock someone.  They don’t want the interviewer to think poorly of them (for violating our societal norms), but more importantly, they don’t want to face their true inner demons

Without the opportunity of financial gain to force a true reflection of one’s values, most of those surveyed say they won’t shock others because they don’t want to be someone who would shock others for money.  I’m certain that many of them might even believe it, because they don’t want to face the uncomfortable truth that they might be someone who would shock another person for fun and profit (well, actually just profit; if they would do it for fun, I’m sure they would readily admit to it).  But when faced with that forced reflection (for the opportunity to profit), people have no problem accepting the truth, and then shocking the crap out of people.  I would have loved to see exit interviews.


And that, to me, is what is most interesting about this study – I think it shows that ~60% of people will lie to you, but for the low, low price of 20 pounds, the truth can be bought.  Who needs waterboarding???


  1. They've been studying this stuff for a while, and I think the greatest application has to be the Nuremberg Trials after WWII. It turns out "just following orders" is a valid response, as long as you were drawing a paycheck.

  2. It's pretty fascinating how this society works when money comes to play! Never leave money on the table!

  3. People act differently when they are asked about it then when they have the situations and must make a quick decision and yes they chose money.

  4. This reminds me of a similar discussion we're having in my humanities class.

  5. This is both a bit shocking, but also very interesting. I always find it interesting to see how people act in those kind of settings.

  6. Money really is the root of all evil, hahaha, but it's also the way to get people to talk.

  7. This is pretty interesting. Great post

  8. that's actually super interesting, great read :)

  9. Money ruins everything !... or do they ? hmmm

  10. Money does always change things. Great post.

    Keep 'em coming!