« Investment schemes to use eminent domain to take mortgages from banks | Main | adhd marriage ? »

Give this man a TED talk

while psychologically damaging experiences like childhood abuse often elicited sympathy for the protagonist and sometimes even prompted considerable mitigation of blame, the participants still saw the protagonist's behavior as intentional. The protagonist himself was twisted by his history of trauma; it wasn't just his brain. Most participants felt that in such cases, personal character remained relevant in determining how the protagonist went on to act.

We labeled this pattern of responses "naïve dualism." This is the belief that acts are brought about either by intentions or by the physical laws that govern our brains and that those two types of causes -- psychological and biological -- are categorically distinct. People are responsible for actions resulting from one but not the other. (In citing neuroscience, the Supreme Court may have been guilty of naïve dualism: did it really need brain evidence to conclude that adolescents are immature?)

Naïve dualism is misguided. "Was the cause psychological or biological?" is the wrong question when assigning responsibility for an action. All psychological states are also biological ones.

A better question is "how strong was the relation between the cause (whatever it happened to be) and the effect?" If, hypothetically, only 1 percent of people with a brain malfunction (or a history of being abused) commit violence, ordinary considerations about blame would still seem relevant. But if 99 percent of them do, you might start to wonder how responsible they really are.

It is crucial that as a society, we learn how to think more clearly about causes and personal responsibility -- not only for extraordinary actions like crime but also for ordinary ones, like maintaining exercise regimens, eating sensibly and saving for retirement. As science advances, there will be more and more "causal" alternatives to intentional explanations, and we will be faced with more decisions about when to hold people responsible for their behavior. It's important that we don't succumb to the allure of neuroscientific explanations and let everyone off the hook.

John Monterosso is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. Barry Schwartz, a co-author of "Practical Wisdom," is a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)