June 23, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

David Walker takes a look at how neuroscience may explain personal levels of morality.

Why do people do bad things for money? An obvious question perhaps, but while we all do selfish things sometimes, a few decades of massive corporate scandals really puts occasionally jumping a queue into perspective.

Did you know the people that make your KitKats and coffee are still being boycotted by Save the Children over allegations that Nestlé endangered the lives of poverty-stricken newborn infants? Pressure groups say they mislabelled products abused humanitarian aid and tricked poor mothers with free formula milk samples that interfere with lactation, thus forcing them to buy the expensive stuff.

Recently we saw big members of the financial, automotive and pharmaceutical industries hit the headlines for profiting from inarguably immoral practices. Yet despite this tide of corruption, recent neurological research conducted at University College London shows that when gaining from other’s suffering we feel far less good about it than we do about profit earned through altruism.

So what is going wrong in our apparently good-natured brains that means, in all of these cases, that scores of people must have signed off on profiteering and exploitation? None were stealing bread to feed a starving family, these are far more black-and-white issues.

Dr Molly Crockett, lead author of the study, might have some of the answers. She believes their insights may be a result of learned behaviour to avoid getting a bad reputation.

“Our research suggests that when we make moral decisions, we simulate what others would think of our choices, even when no one is watching us.

“The brain region we identified as keeping track of moral values is an area that flexibly represents rules and goals, and plays a central role in learning. This suggests learning is important for moral behaviour, and the content of moral norms may vary across environments.”

So perhaps it is the case that those embroiled in such scandals are taught to care less about the ill-gotten nature of their gains, by an environment where single-minded dedication to profit dominates.

But Dr Crockett’s work suggests this might not be necessary, saying that “our data are quite consistent with the idiom ‘everyone has their price’”. Rather than supressing our good instincts, perhaps they are simply outweighed by the prospect of immense personal gain, especially in such a competitive culture.

We can only speculate about the money it takes to make people collectively decide to act immorally, but our flexible approach to ethics might throw off our predictions. Dr Crockett is following this idea up in her next investigation, in which she is “exploring whether framing harmful behaviour as being ‘for a good cause’ can change the way the brain represents ill-gotten gains.” I have a feeling it will make quite a splash in the Nestlé boardroom, if anyone is brave enough to present it to them.

David Walker is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

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