Kill a Baby to Save a Family? Brain Activity Shows Your Approach to Moral Dilemmas

Doctor Diana Rivas displays a human brain on a working surface at the 'Museum of Neuropathology' in Lima on November 16, 2016. The 'Museum of Neuropathology' at the Santo Toribio de Mogrovejo hospital bears a collection of 290 brains and offers an unusual journey by encephalic masses unrevealing the secrets of the most complex organ of the human body. Ernesto Benavides/AFP/Getty Images

Moral dilemmas are tricky situations and how someone will react differs widely from person to person. But new research suggests that there may be a way to predict which option someone may be more inclined to choose.

How your brain responds when you are watching another human experience physical pain may shed light on whether you, too, would personally avoid harm during a dilemma, according to scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"The findings give us a glimpse into what is the nature of morality," study author Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a psychiatry professor at UCLA, said in a statement. "This is a foundational question to understand ourselves, and to understand how the brain shapes our own nature."

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Iacoboni and his colleagues recruited 19 adults—a mix of males and females between the ages of 18 and 35 years old—to better understand how a type of brain cells, known as mirror neurons, function.

"We examined brain activity while participants witnessed needles pierce another person's hand, versus similar non-painful stimuli," the authors explain in their paper published in the journal Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience. "More than a month later, participants completed moral dilemmas where causing harm either did or did not maximize outcomes."

One of the moral dilemmas they were faced with involved civilians who were hiding from soldiers who were out to kill. In the scenario, a baby is getting ready to cry and the noise would result in all the civilians being murdered. The participant had to choose between either smothering the infant to death to prevent the civilians from being killed or let the baby cry, therefore resulting in the death of everyone else.

A Rohingya Muslim refugee holds her baby at the registration center after she crossed the border from Myanmar, in Teknaf, Bangladesh on October 2, 2017. Myanmar has proposed taking back the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh in recent weeks, the Bangladeshi foreign minister said after talks Monday with a senior Myanmar representative. Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

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The research team believed that people who are more inclined to cringe at the pain of others—as indicated by neural responses—during the needle piercing video would be more likely to reject harm, such as making the baby stop crying, during the hypothetical situation.

Their hypothesis was accurate, but as they also predicted, they didn't find an association between brain activity and harming a person for the benefit of the public. Instead, cognitive responses of overall-well being seem to be at play there, rather than a concrete focus on harm, the authors note in their paper.

Overall, the findings of the small study suggest some good news: people may actually be concerned about harming others during moral dilemmas, rather then just take into account their own discomfort.

Many of us will never be in the situation of choosing to silence a crying baby during wartime. But we may be more likely to face difficult dilemmas surrounding self-driving cars, which are rising in popularity. If the brakes fail, do you choose to veer off and risk the passengers lives, or do you keep going straight and plow into a family with a young child? In a 2016 study, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology examined how people would react during that type of situation.

The conclusion of that survey? Most people preferred to not use a self-driving car.