Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Don’t miss our Special Issue of AJOB Neuroscience: The Social Brain

By Katie Strong, PhD

If you haven’t already, be sure to read the 6.3 Issue of AJOB Neuroscience, our special issue on The Social Brain guest edited by Dr. Jean Decety. The issue centers on the biological, neuroscientific, and clinical evidence for human social cognition, along with the philosophical and ethical arguments for modifying morality and social emotions and behaviors, such as empathy, trust, and cooperativity.

The first target article by Jean Decety and Jason M. Cowell entitled “Empathy, Justice, and Moral Behavior” argues that despite the importance of empathy for driving our social lives, forging necessary social bonds, and making complex decisions, empathy alone is not enough in regards to moral resolutions and judgements. While empathy underpins cooperativity and the formation of social bonds, empathy has evolved to promote bias and in-group social preferences. The target article provides evidence that empathy does not always lead to moral decisions, and empathy often favors in-group members over out-group members. Decision making can be biased to favor relatives or a single individual over many people and for that reason, reasoning must accompany empathy. “Empathy alone is powerless in the face of rationalization and denial. But reasoning and empathy can achieve great things,” state the authors at the conclusion of the paper.

The second target article that focuses heavily on moral judgment is called “How the Mind Matters for Morality”. Authors Alek Charkroff and Liane Young discuss how the intentions behind an action guide moral judgement. The authors of the paper report that when judging others, intent matters. For example, an accident that causes harm to another with innocent intentions is deemed more forgivable than malicious intentions that have no consequence. But does intent matter when it comes to actions that have no victims, such as purity violations (incest or ingesting taboo foods)? According to a study cited in the target article, we do not weigh the intentions of those who commit harmful acts and impure acts as identical; participants judged accidental harms less morally wrong than accidental incest and the intent to harm as more morally wrong than the intent to commit incest. The authors conclude that a variety of controversial topics in bioethics include what many consider purity violations, such as suicide, cloning, sexual reassignment, and human enhancement. While many condemn these acts because they are harmful to others, we may also be averse to these actions because we regard them as purity violations. Understanding how these contentious acts are judged could reshape certain aspects of many bioethical debates.

The three remaining target articles discuss “the social brain” with specific respect to psychopaths, children, and caretakers. In “A Neural Perspective of Immoral Behavior and Psychopathy,” Tasha Poppa and Antoine Bechara review the evidence in the literature that tie together emotional deficits and immoral behavior – traits of those diagnosed as psychopathic – with dysfunction in specific neural pathways. The authors speak to other contributing factors as to why individuals may participate in immoral behaviors aside from brain abnormalities, including genetic factors, child abuse, and certain environmental stressors. Although rehabilitative treatments for psychopaths has not proven successful, further studying the origin of these psychopathic behaviors may yield more personalized and more effective treatments towards modifying behaviors. “Social Support Can Buffer Against Stress and Shape Brain Activity” by Camelia E. Hostinar and Megan R. Gunnar focuses on the neural mechanisms behind social support for stress with an emphasis on how this impacts children. Children benefit immensely with regards to interpersonal skills and even brain development when raised in an environment that offers parental support. For that reason, the authors suggest a number of social support systems for parents and child-care workers that would encourage positive environments for children (with a positive impact on their brains) including longer paid maternity and paternity leave and home-visitation programs for at-risk families (advocating for these techniques over other neurointerventions such as oxytocin nasal spray).

The final target article, “Improving Empathy in the Care of Pain Patients” by  Philip L. Jackson, Fanny Eugene, and Marie-Pier B. Tremblay cite studies indicating that healthcare workers are not as perceptive or empathic as non-experts when it comes to the pain of patients and therefore risk underestimating levels of pain. Authors provide a number of reasons for this behavior, including gender and race bias, self-preservation against a decline in mental exhaustion, and desensitization following years of exposure. Despite this lapse of empathy, the authors are wary of interventions —such as transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) or oxytocin nasal sprays—that would be designed to improve or enhance empathy of healthcare. Even noninvasive behavior medications such as training programs would need to be further studied to determine the impact on physicians’ mental wellbeing. Improving empathy by any means though is fraught with ethical concerns if “we are aiming for “suprahuman empathy” by labeling as a deficit what should be seen as a healthy empathic response given the situation,” the authors of the paper remind us. 

The 6.4 Issue of AJOB Neuroscience will be hot of the presses soon and will include two target articles: “An ethical evaluation of stereotactic neurosurgery for anorexia nervosa” by Sabine Müller et al. and “A threat to Autonomy? The Intrusion of Predictive Brain Implant” by Frederic Gilbert. Check back with The Neuroethics Blog for a press release and synopsis of the articles!


(1) Liane Young, R. S. When Ignorance Is No Excuse: Different Roles for Intent across Moral Domains. Cognition 2011, 120 (2), 202–214.

(2) Expertise Modulates the Perception of Pain in Others. Current Biology 2007, 17 (19), 1708-1713 (accessed Nov 17, 2015).

(3) Decety, J.; Yang, C.-Y.; Cheng, Y. Physicians down-Regulate Their Pain Empathy Response: An Event-Related Brain Potential Study. NeuroImage 2010, 50 (4), 1676–1682.

Want to cite this post?

Strong, K. (2015). Don’t miss our Special Issue of AJOB Neuroscience: The Social Brain. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2015/12/dont-miss-our-special-issue-of-ajob.html

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