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Op-Ed: People with higher sense of justice use cognition, not emotions

By Paul Wallis     Mar 29, 2014 in Science
A study by the University of Chicago has shown that those who have a stronger sense of justice use reason, rather than emotion, as primary intellectual drivers. A strange result in a crime-obsessed society, but interesting in its findings.
Science Daily:
Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain-scanning device, the team studied what happened in the participants’ brains as they judged videos depicting behavior that was morally good or bad. For example, they saw a person put money in a beggar’s cup or kick the beggar’s cup away. The participants were asked to rate on a scale how much they would blame or praise the actor seen in the video. People in the study also completed questionnaires that assessed cognitive and emotional empathy, as well as their justice sensitivity.
But the brain imaging also yielded surprises. During the behavior-evaluation exercise, people with high justice sensitivity showed more activity than average participants in parts of the brain associated with higher-order cognition. Brain areas commonly linked with emotional processing were not affected
Emotionally unaffected? This is more than strange; it seems almost counter-intuitive on multiple levels. Many people feel anger when they see injustice, feel fear if they think it may apply to them, and subtler but profound emotions like disgust. (Well, those that don’t consider crime cool do, anyway.) Empathy, also, by definition, is emotionally related.
This also flies in the face of another study done in 2012 by the same researchers, in which it was found that reactions to injustice were emotional and instant.
Justice as a survival mechanism?
There's a new dimension, however, in this new study, and the newly assessed reactions appear to have a purely functional basis. Interestingly, the basis of expectations of justice and the “search for justice” is apparently based on analysis and calculation. This seems more like a survival reaction, “Panic later; get your facts straight now”.
It may be that the reaction to injustice is a socially-evolved reaction, an adapted social mental process. The people with the higher senses of justice also tended to assign more blame to unjust parties and more praise to those seen as acting justly.
The calculating mental processes are at least theoretically hardwired in to higher brain functions. They’re necessary for many of these functions. These are the working processes of doing anything requiring quantification, measurement, or using skills.
So why are they involved in these rather subjective valuations of justice? They are valuations, ascribing values to situations, so that makes sense. The question is rather whether they’re also threat evaluations, or related to environmental knowledge. Justice or injustice, after all, are parts of the social environment.
There may be other reasons, too:
…evaluating good actions elicited relatively high activity in the region of the brain involved in decision-making, motivation and rewards. This finding suggests that perhaps individuals make judgments about behavior based on how they process the reward value of good actions as compared to bad actions.
Fine, but rewards to someone else? Guilt or rewards by association? “If rewards apply to that person, they apply to me by association”? Seems a bit wishful, or perhaps a quid pro quo reaction. Do good, therefore receive rewards?
In a society which spends so much time watching fictitious criminals as pseudo heroes, the opposite probably also holds true. Rewards come from other sources, too, called “theft”. That the society also seems to have so much difficulty telling the difference between movie criminals and real ones would seem to indicate that this type of “reward instinct/reflex” is pretty primitive.
What about the "crime is cool" sense of justice?
It’d be interesting to see if the calculating function related to justice could foresee possible injustices or injustices which were less obvious. If this or that is done, who gets hurt? Is that justice or injustice? Injustice is very much a part of history. Prevention of injustice is supposedly a principle of law and democracy, but its success or otherwise is highly debatable.
When you assign values, you assign priorities. The logic of human thinking has another characteristic- Evasion. Straightforward situations may be easy to analyze and easy to assess in terms of reactions, but more complex situations may require a lot more thought and much more calculation.
I don’t want to imply that this research has missed a trick. Quite the opposite- The cases I’m suggesting are far more complex, but could be used to evaluate a range of related mental processes which seemingly should be on the radar, but haven’t shown up yet in these findings.
Might even find out why some people admire those who cause injustice, too. Crime and the abuse of human rights are major issues. The “evil” culture crap is based on a virtually inverted set of values which need an explanation. Why someone thinks that an act of injustice which could just as easily happen to themselves as anyone else is OK needs to be understood. Dysfunctional logic? Or are they just fools who don’t see the dangers?
Any way you look at it, there’s a lot more to learn.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about sense of justice, higher brain justice, University of Chicago, Jean Decety, Irving B Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychi