This time the subjects were in fMRI scanners while they delivered electric shocks for money.

But in FeldmanHall’s study, things actually happened. “There are real shocks and real money on the table,” she said. Subjects lying in an MRI scanner were given a choice: Either administer a painful electric shock to a person in another room and make one British pound (a little over a dollar and a half), or spare the other person the shock and forgo the money. Shocks were priced in a graded manner, so that the subject would earn less money for a light shock, and earn the whole pound for a severe shock. This same choice was given 20 times, and the person in the brain scanner could see a video of either the shockee’s hand jerk or both the hand jerk and the face grimace. (Although these shocks were real, they were pre-recorded.)

The brain scanners are supposed to shed light on the neuroscience of moral behavior.

Even though the findings are “a little bit chilling,” Wager says, “it’s important to know.” These kinds of studies can help scientists figure out how the brain dictates moral behavior. “There’s a real neuroscientific interest now in understanding the basis of compassion,” Wager says. “That’s something we are just starting to address scientifically, but it’s a critical frontier because it has such an impact on human life.”

Barretina bow:  Not Exactly Rocket Science.

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