Brain Scans to Unmask the Dishonest and Promise Breakers

Submitted by SadInAmerica on Sat, 01/09/2010 - 10:08pm.

To trust, or not to trust... a question that may be worth millions. Scientists say that now the breaching of promises could be predicted by a certain brain activity pattern visible in brain scans. (Excellent article!... This scan should be made mandatory for ALL politicians BEFORE entering 'the race'... it  would definately eliminate the majority leaving a better choice... then randomly scan them again!... Just thinking outloud... LOL! ~ S.I.A.)

Why do people even bother to make promises, particularly if they do not mean to keep them? The explanation could be that this psychological mechanism evolved in humans - a species of social mammals - as a means to foster co-operation through trust.

A group of scientists from Switzerland, who have published their findings in Neuron, have shown that the breach of a promise is associated with increased activity in certain areas of the brain associated with emotions.


To register these changes in brain activity, Dr. Baumgartner of the University of Zurich and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. As they state, such brain scans even make it possible to predict a breach of promise through registering a "perfidious" brain activity pattern and hence revealing malevolent intentions beforehand.

Speaking on the implications of their findings, the research team suggested they could be valuable in assessing the intentions of criminals who are due to be released on parole. But how did the scientists test their predictions?

It's all about money

Two major motivations can be distinguished behind promise-keeping: the benefit of future co-operation (exchange) and simply the desire to do "the right thing."

Baumgartner's team focused on studying the second one. For that purpose, they applied a modified version of an economic game of trust between an investor and a trustee, when an investor was given real money and was free to choose whether to invest it in a trustee or not.

Giving the money to the trustee, which is almost only the case if the latter chooses a high promise level (always to share), increases the amount of money fivefold. However, the investor still takes the risk, because the trustee might not share later and keep all the money.

After making a promise decision, the trustee, in his turn, anticipates whether the promise affects the interaction partner's decision and is subsequently free to keep or break the promise.

The game consisted of two trials. In the first run, trustees did not give any promises, and the investors simply had to guess their intentions. In the second, trustees had to make a non-binding promise if they planned always, mostly, sometimes or never to send back half of the money.

In the course of both runs, the trustees had their brains scanned, and spoke to their investors from inside the scanner. With all that, the authors of the research particularly stress that the social interactions between the game partners were genuine, and all choices and decisions actually affected the interaction partners' monetary payoffs.

Words are cheap

It comes as no surprise that almost all the trustees promised to always share their winnings. Nevertheless, many of them appeared to be just as good at breaking these promises as they were at making them.

At the time when trustees were breaking their promises, the scanner registered increased activity in certain brain areas: DLPFC, ACC, amygdala, anterior insula and inferior frontal gyrus.

Because most of these areas are involved in emotion regulation, the researchers hypothesized that the brain activity they had observed was nothing else but a consequence of an emotional conflict evoked by the misleading promise decision. In other words, when someone conceives a dishonest act and feels guilt, these areas show increased activity which can be detected by fMRI.
It is also noteworthy that the same areas of the brain cortex remained inactive in people who made promises which they eventually honored, suggesting that those who cheated did it intentionally.

Now, why is the fact of intentional cheating important? Simply because having cheated and planning to break a promise is different. With previous surveys having claimed to have spotted liars from brain scans, the possibility to predict cheats opens totally different perspectives.

"Even though people are aware that they are doing something wrong, they haven't actually done anything - they still have a chance to remedy the situation and do the right thing," New Scientist quotes Baumgartner as saying.

Crime and parole

With all that, the major potential practical implications that Baumgartner envisions for his findings bring concerns that are just as serious.

First of all, the researcher himself admits that scans are unlikely to be able to predict whether someone who does not intend to break a promise will end up doing so, New Scientist reports.

Secondly, this approach may also fail when people, for whatever reason, do not feel any emotional conflict while making false promises, such as in the case of pathological liars.
Because of these uncertainties, relying on fMRI-deduced brain scans to decide, for instance, whether criminals are to be released on parole if they promise they will not re-offend does not seem to be an ultimately good idea.

"Functional MRI can be very useful for other investigative and forensic purposes, but I do not think that it will ever be a safe method to use for prediction of behavior," says Daniel Langleben, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania in the US.

"If a government or a society invests enough effort in developing an fMRI-based method to predict behavior in criminals… people will be categorized with the poorly working method and thus hurt," he concluded.

Vitaliy Matveev - January 9, 2010 - source RussiaToday

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Submitted by SadInAmerica on Sat, 01/09/2010 - 10:08pm.