“What’s wrong with the ethical compass of the field?”

In the CHE article on women in philosophy, a commentator asked a great question about philosophy’s ethical compass.

It was odd, then, to read about possibly relevant research today:

ScienceDaily (Oct. 30, 2012) — New research shows a simple reason why even the most intelligent, complex brains can be taken by a swindler’s story — one that upon a second look offers clues it was false.

When the brain fires up the network of neurons that allows us to empathize, it suppresses the network used for analysis, a pivotal study led by a Case Western Reserve University researcher shows.
How could a CEO be so blind to the public relations fiasco his cost-cutting decision has made?
When the analytic network is engaged, our ability to appreciate the human cost of our action is repressed.
At rest, our brains cycle between the social and analytical networks. But when presented with a task, healthy adults engage the appropriate neural pathway, the researchers found.
The study shows for the first time that we have a built-in neural constraint on our ability to be both empathetic and analytic at the same time
The work suggests that established theories about two competing networks within the brain must be revised. More, it provides insights into the operation of a healthy mind versus those of the mentally ill or developmentally disabled.
“This is the cognitive structure we’ve evolved,” said Anthony Jack, an assistant professor of cognitive science at Case Western Reserve and lead author of the new study. “Empathetic and analytic thinking are, at least to some extent, mutually exclusive in the brain.”
The research is published in the current online issue of NeuroImage…
But, even healthy adults can rely too much on one network, Jack said. A look at newspaper business pages offers some examples.
“You want the CEO of a company to be highly analytical in order to run a company efficiently, otherwise it will go out of business,” he said. “But, you can lose your moral compass if you get stuck in an analytic way of thinking.”
“You’ll never get by without both networks,” Jack continued. “You don’t want to favor one, but cycle efficiently between them, and employ the right network at the right time.”
The researchers continue to test the theory, studying whether brains will shift from the social network to the analytical when students in the MRI see people depicted in a dehumanizing way, that is, as animals or objects. The group is also studying whether disgust and social stereotyping confound our moral compass by recruiting the analytical network and depressing social network activity.”

This seems to me important work. Not only does it offer an explanation for the prevalence of ass***es in our highly analytic field, but it highlights something we could try to address. Exercises in imagining what it is to be a female assistant prof, for example, might help change people.

Or I could work on something more likely to succeed, such as training my cats to do the dishes.

Just so you know: the PI’s mother is a philosopher, Julie Jack, Somerville College, Oxford.

7 thoughts on ““What’s wrong with the ethical compass of the field?”

  1. I think that as a general principle our cognition looked at on the neural level can look much less seamless and integrated that we tend to experience it as being. It’s a very interesting thought that an academic field in the humanities can in a way brutalize some people. If that’s so, we should at least think about why many women find philosophy departments hostile and unfriendly.

  2. This is reminding me of Paul Slovic’s well-known research on eliciting compassion – that is, looking at photographs of faces of needy people leads to larger donations than if numbers are introduced. In this article on why it is so difficult to get people to act to stop genocide, for example, it’s addressed in Section 6, “The Collapse of Compassion,” and illustrated in Figure 8.

  3. Lga, thanks for the reference. I’ll need to look at it.
    I’m beginning to worry about priming studies, which the faces thing might not be. Kahneman has raised big questions about the lack of attempts to replicate the priming studies. This summer I heard a great talk by someone involved in investigating the latest psych scandal. He was saying that there’s no incentive for checking each other’s research through attempts to replicate.

  4. There’s currently a campaign to get labs across the country (or the world?) involved in reproducing others’ results. My own university is involved in it too. (http://openscienceframework.org/project/EZcUj/wiki/home)

    Slovic’s work doesn’t involve priming, which uses words or images to influence people subliminally right before they do the task of interest; he just shows the pictures or ads and finds out how much people will donate. One of my colleagues has replicated the research with pictures of pandas, actually.

  5. Lga, thanks again. It was in fact Brian Nosek whose talk I heard at a workshop.

    I might be mistaken in thinking the term “priming” was used much more widely by Brian and others discussing the problem. I love the idea of using pandas, though that might stretch the idea of “reproducing.”

    The Sunday Cat has become interested in pandas lately.

  6. I think it was priming research that turned out to have been falsified in last year’s revelations, which is probably why it’s being so questioned now. I’m pretty sure that numerous studies have used priming legitimately, but the findings related to stereotyping that were in the papers that have been retracted definitely need to be replicated before people can build on that research again.

    Looking forward to seeing what the Sunday cat has to say about pandas!

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