Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sacred Values as Heuristics

Can being faced with a decision involving morals be a good thing? Research has shown in the past that morally-laden decisions are perceived as difficult and unpleasant. Therefore, conventional wisdom suggests that people would react characteristically when faced with decision-making with moral considerations, such as avoiding being placed in a position to make moral decisions, or effortfully spending more time deliberating over difficult moral decisions.

However, perhaps there's more to it than meets the eye, and Hanselmann and Tanner from the University of Zurich think so. In a very concise study, Hanselmann and Tanner (2008) sought to show that the involvement of moral issues and values can, instead, actually facilitate our decision-making. By invoking what are known as sacred values (absolute and inviolable values), we may end up spending less time thinking about the dilemma simply because an option that has sacred value makes us think that it cannot be compromised.

Every dilemma or decision involves some extent of trade-off. The authors conceptualized three types of trade-offs for the study:

Taboo trade-off
a situation that pits a secular value (i.e. a value that does not hold moral worth) against a sacred value

Tragic trade-off
a situation that pits two sacred values against each other

Routine trade-off
a situation that pits two secular values against each other

One might thus think of a routine trade-off in the case of a typical job dilemma. Faced with employment in Company A vs Company B, one might consider trading off mundane items such as salary, distance or working environment. On the other hand, an extreme (though commonplace) example of a tragic trade-off would be to decide whether to save one's parent or an offspring instead in the event of a fire.

In the first experiment, 84 students from the University of Zurich were presented with three scenarios representing a taboo, tragic or routine trade-off. Each scenario provided a choice between two options. An example of a taboo trade-off scenario was as follows:

Imagine that you are the president of the local authority of a village that has been severely affected by a flood. The local authority is discussing whether to invest a considerable amount of the annual budget in improved flood protection measures. In this case, however, the village would have to forego a planned facelift for the village square. As president, you have to decide between the improvements in flood protection (option 1) and the facelift for the village square (option 2).

Participants were then asked to rate how they felt about the decision, such as how emotionally negative the decision was and how difficult it was to decide on an option. The following results were gathered:

As can be seen, the difficulty of decision-making was lowest when sacred values were pitted against secular values, showing that, although decision-making involving some degree of moral choice is still emotionally unpleasant, it can lead to easier decision-making. A second experiment, which was a more complex (with multiple traits to access decision difficulty and affectiveness) but fundamentally similar experiment, was conducted and the results were replicated.

Tetlock (2003) had assumed that the mere contemplation of trade-offs that involve sacred values elicits distress and disturbance. There could very well be an adaptive or functional purpose to our negative perception of moral choices which makes us acutely aware that compromising on sacred values can have adverse consequences. In a sense, we are psychologically 'punished' for even contemplating the trade-off of sacred values, so let alone act against our instinct to preserve sacred values. These findings thus suggest that reliance on sacred values may therefore work as a heuristic that we use to increase the efficiency of our decision-making.

ResearchBlogging.orgMartin Hanselmann, & Carmen Tanner (2008). Taboos and conflicts in decision making: Sacred values, decision difficulty, and emotions Judgment and Decision Making, 3 (1)

Tetlock, P. (2003). Thinking the unthinkable: sacred values and taboo cognitions Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7 (7), 320-324 DOI: 10.1016/S1364-6613(03)00135-9

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Existential Neuroscience

Is it reasonable to fear death? If you agree with Lucretius, you will say no. In what is known as the Symmetry Argument, Lucretius contends that that the time before our existence is similar to the time of our future non-existence. And since we do not fear the time before we existed, it is not reasonable to fear our future non-existence i.e. death. (See Rosenbaum, 1989 for a more detailed exposition)

However, even if you concede to Lucretius’s argument, the fact remains that the awareness of our mortality generates a significant threat to our psychological well-being. A large corpus of research on terror management theory details how mortality saliency affects our self-esteem, worldview, among others.

In a recent fMRI study, Quilin and colleagues (2011) extends our knowledge on terror management theory by exploring the neural correlates of mortality salience. They were interested in the activity of the amygdala, rostral anterior cingulated gyrus (ACC), ventral tegmental & caudate nucleus (CN).

In this within-subjects experiment, thoughts of death were induced in the participants by requiring them to agree or disagree with a statement such as I am afraid of a painful death. Statements about dental pain were used in the control condition.


The authors found higher activations in:

  • Right amygdala
  • Left ACC
  • Right CN
They suggested that the activations in the amygdala and ACC may indicate ‘non-conscious, latent markers of threat aroused by mortality salience’ and that further investigations may reveal the role of the CN in regards to the defensive mechanisms that we employ against mortality threat.

This area seems promising to me and more research needs to be done to help us better understand how we deal with threats of mortality. It would also be interesting to look at how religious affiliations affect the way the brain deal with existential fears. If indeed 'mortality threats functions as a potential for anxiety rather than as experienced anxiety', what can neuroimaging techniques tell us about whether believing in a higher being help us deal with the potential or experienced anxiety resulting from mortality threats?
Quirin M, Loktyushin A, Arndt J, K├╝stermann E, Lo YY, Kuhl J, & Eggert L (2011). Existential neuroscience: a functional magnetic resonance imaging investigation of neural responses to reminders of one's mortality. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience PMID: 21266462

Rosenbaum, S. (1989). The Symmetry Argument: Lucretius Against the Fear of Death Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 50 (2) DOI: 10.2307/2107964