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Blame Your Brain: The Fault Lies Somewhere Within : NPR

Stashed in: Brain, Societal Woes, Crime

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The view that a causally deterministic world precludes free will is known as incompatibilism in philosophy, and while it isn't universally endorsed, it's not uncommon. So if learning about neuroscience suggests that the world is deterministic, and if determinism is judged incompatible with free will, then learning about neuroscience could have implications for how people assign moral responsibility and dole out retributive punishment.

To test these ideas, the researchers had participants read articles that were either about neuroscience or about other topics (nuclear power, natural headache remedies). The neuroscience articles highlighted the mechanistic, neural bases for human decisions, as reflected in these representative snippets:

"In a study published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, researchers using brain scanners could predict people's decisions seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of making them ... "

"The implications immediately seem far greater, and perhaps more unsettling, than learning about the physiological basis of other brain functions."

"The unease people feel originates in a misconception of self as separate from the brain, said National Institute of Health neuroscientist Mark Hallett."

After reading either the neuroscience articles or the alternatives, participants completed a seemingly distinct study for which they read about a student's violent crime:

"In the spring of 2005, Jonathan Scarrow, a high school senior in Ohio was involved in an altercation at a local bar which led to the death [of] a college student, Brandon Mahew ... "

"Scarrow entered an enraged state while fighting with Mahew ... When Scarrow was finally subdued by his own friends, Mahew lay bloody and unconscious. He was rushed to hospital, but never regained consciousness, and finally died two days later from massive head trauma."

After reading about the incident, participants were asked to rate Scarrow's blameworthiness and how long he should be incarcerated for his transgressions. To make sure that responses reflected participants' views concerning retributive punishment, they were asked to recommend the length of a jail sentence that would follow a fully effective program of rehabilitation, and were additionally told that the length of the sentence would have no effect on deterring future crimes.

The researchers found that, on average, participants who read the neuroscience articles assigned shorter prison sentences to Scarrow and found Scarrow less blameworthy than those who read the other articles. Bolstered by three additional studies reported in the paper, the findings suggest that learning about neuroscience reduces belief in free will, which in turn makes people less inclined towards retributive punishment.

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