I Swear You're Doing that On Purpose!

Positivity and Negativity Affect What Parts of the Brain We Use to Judge Situations
May 9, 2016

A presidential campaign is a spectacle of human nature unlike any other, and the 2016 primary race has not disappointed.

We’ve seen all the normal rallying cries, political rhetoric, heated debate and political attacks you would normally see in a presidential campaign, but this time we’ve added name-calling, physical violence and even anatomical discussion

Donald TrumpIt is one of the great geniuses of modern democracy that we are invited to scrutinize our would-be leaders, and it is one of the great geniuses of our would-be leaders to give us all the ammunition we could ever want to scrutinize with.

Negativity is the norm, and it is as unsettling to us as it is fun to take part in. But with all the attack ads and muckraking that will continue to fly around for the next few months, how does that negativity affect our decision-making process?

Lawrence Ngo and Scott Huettel, Duke University medical resident and neuroscience professor respectively, have an answer to that question. To take a look at it, let’s do an experiment.

Below are two fictional scenarios based on the Hillary Clinton email scandal — please note I am not taking any stance on this, I’m just borrowing pieces to make an illustration. Give them a read and think about the end result and Hillary’s intent. Here’s the first one:

Being a busy Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton finds it convenient and time-saving to use her personal email for her Secretary of State duties. Her server gets hacked and some classified material is stolen. Did Hillary Clinton intentionally leak classified information?

Now here’s the second one:

Being a busy Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton finds it convenient and time-saving to use her personal email for her Secretary of State duties. The State Department gets hacked but Hillary Clinton’s emails are safe on the personal server. Did Hillary Clinton intentionally protect classified information?

In a study published in the journal "Scientific Reports," Huettel and Ngo found that people are more likely to answer “yes” to the first scenario, where the outcome of the person’s actions is negative and “no” to the second, where the outcome is positive.

They presented these types of vignettes to 283 people, and like the two scenarios above, they explicitly stated that the actor’s primary motivation was something other than the outcome (i.e. convenience instead of security). In the study, participants were asked to rank how intentional an outcome was on a scale from a completely unintentional one to a “this-is-my-purpose” eight.

When the outcome was negative, like harm to the environment or people losing money, participants graded the outcomes a five: more intentional than not. When the outcome was positive, like helping the environment or people making more money, the average score was 3.5: more random than intentional.

That may seem like a small difference, but in our daily lives where we make thousands of judgments about what happens around us, assigning blame unevenly drastically affects how we view the world. Earlier studies show that 82% of people view negative consequences as intentional while only 23% say positive ones are.

Personally, I see myself making unfair judgments on my commute every morning. Nobody wants to be on the highway, and we’re all just trying to get where we’re going. If someone changes lanes and I get to move forward, my first thought is never, “That guy is trying to make my commute better.”

But if someone cuts me off, I’ll yell a bit and sometimes accuse him of trying to get us into a wreck. Then, when I’ve cooled down, I’ll realize I was being unfair and rescind that blame.

Huettel and Ngo saw that walk-back effect as well. When participants had more time to review the facts, the bias toward blaming people for negative outcomes decreased.

Hillary ClintonKnowing that this bias—called the Knobe Effect after philosopher and former UNC-Chapel Hill professor Joshua Knobe—exists, the logical next question is why it exists. So the researchers ran two more experiments using both surveys and functional MRI brain imaging.

Their first idea was that the perception of intentionality correlates with a story’s salience—a neuroscience term describing how much a stimulus distinguishes itself from other stimuli: essentially, how eye-catching something is. They thought that negative outcomes grab people’s attention more than positive ones, and that greater attention led to more blame.

They hypothesized that a boring scenario would score close to a one, the thought being that if a side-effect was mundane and inconsequential enough, people would have no reason to think the actor did it on purpose. To test this, the researchers drafted a third low-salience scenario like this:

Being a busy Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton finds it convenient and time-saving to use her personal email for her Secretary of State duties. One night Hillary Clinton got hungry and ordered a pizza from Papa John’s, and now she gets Papa John’s emails on her personal server. Did Hillary Clinton intentionally get the Papa John’s emails?

The question begs the answer, “Who cares?” but what Huettel and Ngo found was that people rated these scenarios less intentional than the negative outcome, but more intentional than the positive.

And that result wasn’t because the participants were really interested in Papa John’s. The researchers tested for salience and found that negative outcomes were the most salient, positive outcomes were second, and neutral scenarios like the pizza emails were a distant third. Salience was not the whole story.

So they ran one final test using similar scenarios, but while also monitoring the participants’ brain activity with an MRI. On top of intentionality questions, they also answered questions about how they felt emotionally about the scenarios, their moral judgments and how the actor’s behavior in the scenario fit with how the participant thought that type of person should behave, a concept called “statistical normativity.”

AmygdalaAgain, the participants were emotionally moved by negative outcomes, and often labeled those outcomes as intentional. The fMRI scans showed activity in the participants’ amygdalas: pieces of the brain responsible for processing emotion.

On the positive side, the amygdala did not do much. Instead most of the brain work happened in the prefrontal cortex, where the determination of good, balancing of actions and consequences, and planning to meet goals happens. In the surveys, participants said they relied on statistics more than emotions to determine whether an outcome was intentional.

For example, in the scenario where the emails being on Hillary Clinton’s private server protects confidential material, people who said she did it on purpose were more likely to say that because migrating emails to a personal server is out of the ordinary for a person in her position, than as a simple gut reaction.

What that boils down to is an inherent biological double standard in how we evaluate situations. As human beings we are hard-wired to put a little more reasoning into evaluating gifts than evaluating harms.

From a primitive survival standpoint, this makes sense. For example, most snakebites occur because the snake is defending itself. It doesn’t really care if you live or die, just whether it lives or dies. But to this day, most people are naturally suspicious of snakes, and that suspicion could keep you alive if you are an early human. The response is inherently emotional and the first thing you tell a child scared that the snake is coming to get him is “the snake is more scared of you than you are of it.” To calm everybody down we try to take the emotion out and inject some logic.

In modern society we don’t have that same need to be suspicious and it can actually be counterproductive. Some U.S. laws punish more harshly when an act is determined to be intentional — murder vs. manslaughter being the biggest example. Years in prison or someone’s life can hang in the balance of determining intentionality. Further, it affects how we treat people and judge people in our daily lives, whether it’s a rushing waiter who spills a drink on us, a guy with a cold who doesn’t cover his mouth when he sneezes or the next President of the United States.

Being aware of our bio-biases is a good first step. The next ones: taking time to consider the facts and avoiding snap judgments. Happy election, folks!

—Daniel Lane

Daniel covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.