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Why Are We Quick To Blame Others?

A new study conducted by researchers from Duke University, published in Scientific Reports, has provided new insight into why humans tend to blame people quicker than they would give them credit.


While we cannot know the intentions of people, we still persist in trying to read them. The lead author, Lawrence Ngo, describes their study as being the first to interpret the bias of people as to dismissing negative actions as intentional while they tend to view positive ones as unintentional by using neuroscience research tools.

The participants were presented with several case scenarios where they had to judge whether someone behaved intentionally or not. One of the most common examples used in these cases involves a CEO going forward with a plan for the sake of profits while he knew it would be detrimental to the environment; the majority of the participants (82 % in past studies) would be quick to say that the CEO was intentional in harming the environment. However, when the word “harm” was replaced with “help” in the scenario, only 23 % would describe the CEO’s actions as intentional. The researchers of the new study obtained similar results.

One of the authors, Scott Huettel, professor of psychology and neuroscience and member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, explains that denoting something as intentional cannot be logically explained just because it leads to a bad outcome. He says that while intentionality should in principal be there for both good and bad, it is not.

The researchers also evaluated differences in personality traits, and analysed brain activity (when the participants read the scenarios) using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

They discovered two mechanisms by which people judge the intentionality of a deed. For a negative outcome, the brain regions – including the amygdala, known to process negative emotions – processing emotion were more likely to be involved. The amygdala was activated more strongly when the participant would report a greater emotional reaction. For positive reactions, though, the amygdala was less likely to be activated. Rather, they depended more on statistics than on emotion: the volunteers would consider how often people would behave in a similar manner for certain situations. For example, when it comes to the CEO making a profit and simultaneously benefitting the environment, the participants would be more likely to say that the positive outcome was an unintentional outcome because CEOs normally wish to make money most of the time.

Huettel also says that our moral judgements concerning whether a deed has harmed others can influence judgements relating to the intentionality of that action.

These findings show that philosophy and neuroscience can interconnect, providing “insight into both fields”, according to Ngo. The scientists now wish to bridge them further by examining trust, deception, and altruism in a similar fashion.


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