STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 05/09/2016

Faculty Sabbatical: The Neurology of Moral Decision-Making

by Dr. Bryan Auday |  Department of Psychology

Each year a small percentage of Gordon faculty are on sabbaticals, semester-long breaks from normal teaching and administrative responsibilities. This set-apart time—the word sabbatical is derived from the Hebrew shabbat—frees them for intensive research, writing or other scholarly work. 

Take a moment to reflect on the following hypothetical moral dilemma:

You are a construction worker who is maneuvering a crane on a building site. You have just started your day when you realize that the cable of the crane is about to break. Attached to the cable is an enormous steel beam, which is directly above a crew of six who are working outside.

What would you do? Would you move the arm of the crane a short distance to another area of the site, knowing there is a worker present who will be crushed by the steel beam and will die, but leave the other six workers unhurt? Or would you just let fate play itself out and not move the crane so you would not endanger anyone else, yet witness the steel beam falling and killing the six crew members? 

My sabbatical last fall involved collecting data from over one hundred students who came to my brain imaging laboratory to participate in one of two studies on the neurophysiological correlates of moral decision-making. My six student lab assistants programmed a computer to present dozens of moral dilemmas similar to the one you just read. Each participant had to choose between two difficult options. While they agonized over which choices to make, we were recording their brain waves from 36 distinct locations on their scalp. We did this to gain a better understanding of the neurophysiological processes in the brain that drive the delicate interplay between cognitive and emotional systems used to make a moral decision.

Half of the participants completed a self-affirming task prior to seeing any dilemmas, while the other half were not self-affirmed. We want to investigate if the self-affirming task alters their choices or impacts the degree to which emotional processing is utilized. After the data are analyzed, an article will be prepared for publication.