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January 26, 2012
What Is The Price Of Your Values, Morals and Soul?

What decides whether you will sell out your personal values to the highest bidder? It can be reasonably suggested that there would be no corruption in the world if people refused to sacrifice their value systems for monetary compensation. So why does it happen?

A neuro-imaging study shows that personal values that people refuse to disavow, even when offered cash to do so, are processed differently in the brain than those values that are willingly sold.

The experiment is curious one especially considering its funding sources namely the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation. Seeing that the ONR is responsible and at the very least facilitates acts of espionage, one may question why they are so interested in funding an experiment which has the potential to teach us how to better manipulate decision makers.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is also comfortably tied to many studies seeking a scientific understanding of corruption. Through a NSF grant, Sheheryar Banuri, a political economy doctoral student, initiated a dissertation research revolving entirely around "An Experimental Study of Bribery, Nepotism and Patronage." The goal? To counter anti-corruption policies of course.

Gregory Berns, director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University and lead author of his study stated "our experiment found that the realm of the sacred -- whether it's a strong religious belief, a national identity or a code of ethics -- is a distinct cognitive process." The results were published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

He headed a team that included economists and information scientists from Emory University, a psychologist from the New School for Social Research and anthropologists from the Institute Jean Nicod in Paris, France.

Other studies have attempted to seek the underpinnings of human moral judgment when people are presented with hypothetical dilemmas. Investigators have generally found that particular emotional centers in the brain charged up when the dilemmas involved people in clear and present danger. But the brain activity was diminished in moral decisions that did not involve "up close and personal"' harm to others--such as deciding whether to keep money found in a lost wallet.

Berns study is unique in the sense that sacred and very high moral values were assessed. They were shown to prompt greater activation of an area of the brain associated with rules-based, right-or-wrong thought processes, the study showed, as opposed to the regions linked to processing of costs-versus-benefits.

"We've come up with a method to start answering scientific questions about how people make decisions involving sacred values, and that has major implications if you want to better understand what influences human behavior across countries and cultures," Berns says. "We are seeing how fundamental cultural values are represented in the brain."

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record the brain responses of 32 U.S. adults during key phases of an experiment. In the first phase, participants were shown statements ranging from the mundane, such as "You are a tea drinker," to hot-button issues such "You support gay marriage" and "You are Pro-Life." Each of the 62 statements had a contradictory pair, such as "You are Pro-Choice," and the participants had to choose one of each pair.

At the end of the experiment, participants were given the option of auctioning their personal statements: Disavowing their previous choices for actual money. The participants could earn as much as $100 per statement by simply agreeing to sign a document stating the opposite of what they believed. They could choose to opt out of the auction for statements they valued highly.

"We used the auction as a measure of integrity for specific statements," Berns explains. "If a person refused to take money to change a statement, then we considered that value to be personally sacred to them. But if they took money, then we considered that they had low integrity for that statement and that it wasn't sacred."

The brain imaging data showed a strong correlation between sacred values and activation of the neural systems associated with evaluating rights and wrongs (the left temporoparietal junction) and semantic rule retrieval (the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex), but not with systems associated with reward.

"Most public policy is based on offering people incentives and disincentives," Berns says. "Our findings indicate that it's unreasonable to think that a policy based on costs-and-benefits analysis will influence people's behavior when it comes to their sacred personal values, because they are processed in an entirely different brain system than incentives."

Research participants who reported more active affiliations with organizations, such as churches, sports teams, musical groups and environmental clubs, had stronger brain activity in the same brain regions that correlated to sacred values. "Organized groups may instill values more strongly through the use of rules and social norms," Berns says.

The experiment also found activation in the amygdala, a brain region associated with emotional reactions, but only in cases where participants refused to take cash to state the opposite of what they believe. "Those statements represent the most repugnant items to the individual," Berns says, "and would be expected to provoke the most arousal, which is consistent with the idea that when sacred values are violated, that induces moral outrage."

The study is part of a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, titled "The Biology of Cultural Conflict." Berns edited the special issue, which brings together a dozen articles on the culture of neuroscience, including differences in the neural processing of people on the opposing sides of conflict, from U.S. Democrats and Republicans to Arabs and Israelis.

"As culture changes, it affects our brains, and as our brains change, that affects our culture. You can't separate the two," Berns says. "We now have the means to start understanding this relationship, and that's putting the relatively new field of cultural neuroscience onto the global stage."

Future conflicts over politics and religion will likely play out biologically, Berns says. Some cultures will choose to change their biology, and in the process, change their culture, he notes. He cites the battles over women's reproductive rights and gay marriage as ongoing examples.

Ultimately, if we treat a greater percentage of all things in our lives as sacred, our ideology then moves towards protecting all our interests regardless of compensation or material gain. Much of this has to do with mass consciousness and how we counter corruption within.

Spirituality can create a sense of responsibility, belongingness and bring about social change which in a sense increases our commitment to sacred principles. It was this power that Gandhi used to help his people secure freedom. Human values take us from a state of dependency to a state of total responsibility. And when we take on responsibility or dedicate our lives for a social cause, then we don't have to sit and worry for our small and sometimes insignificant needs. They will be met automatically. This is the law of nature.

Five powerful examples to counter the big 'C' of corruption are the five C's:

1. Connectedness
First, is the sense of connectedness. Corruption begins where a sense of belonging ends. Nobody tries to cheat their own family or people with whom they have a sense of belonging. So if we can extend the belongingness, corruption and greed will come down.

2. Courage
The second 'C' is courage. It is fear or insecurity that makes one resort to corruption. Then one tries to find security through money, which doesn't really happen. We have to create courage and confidence in our ability and the laws of nature.

3. Cosmology
Third, is to bring about an understanding of cosmology. Everything in creation is recycled. Every cell in our body decays and is replaced with new cells. Seeing life from a different perspective of extended space and time is what will deepen the vision, broaden the mind and enrich the heart.

4. Compassion
The fourth 'C' is compassion, which can bring back dedication in society and remove corruption.

5. Commitment
The last 'C' is a sense of commitment -- commitment to contribute to society. If we think of being useful to people rather than about gaining something out of them, then corruption can be rooted out. Everyone has needs and responsibilities. We need to see how we can reduce our needs and increase our contribution. This is absolutely essential in today's world. When the equation between needs and responsibility is disturbed, there is chaos.


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