Is There a Brain Region Associated with a Belief in Social Justice? []

by Annalee Newitz /

socialjusticeSome people believe that we could live in a just world where everybody gets what they deserve. Others believe that’s impossible. Now, neuroscientists say they have evidence that the “just world hypothesis” is a cognitive bias that’s connected with a specific part of the brain.

This does not mean there is a “social justice center” in your brain. What neurologist Michael Schaefer and colleagues discovered is that there is a slightly different pattern of electrical impulses shooting through the brains of people who believe in a just world. They asked people whether they believed in a just world, then put them in an fMRI machine and then asked them to ponder scenarios where people broke from social norms or conformed to them.

Previously, other neuroscientists had identified brain areas that become active when people perceive norm violations. So the group knew that if those areas were lit up in the fMRI, all they were seeing was a response to norm violations in general. But what they found was that a few additional brain regions became active in people who believe in a just world. So they now believe there could be some physiological component to a belief in social justice.

Here’s the researchers’ abstract:

Previous studies identified a network of brain regions involved in the perception of norm violations, including insula, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and right temporoparietal junction area (RTPJ). Activations in these regions are suggested to reflect the perception of norm violations and unfairness. The current study aimed to test this hypothesis by exploring whether a personal disposition to perceive the world as being just is related to neural responses to moral evaluations. The just-world-hypothesis describes a cognitive bias to believe in a just world in which everyone gets what he or she deserves and deserves what he or she gets. Since it has been demonstrated that ACC, RTPJ, and insula are involved in the perception of unfairness, we hypothesized that individual differences in the belief in a just world are reflected by different activations of these brain areas. Participants were confronted with scenarios describing norm-violating or -confirming behavior. FMRI results revealed an activation of dorsal ACC, RTPJ, and insula when perceiving norm violations, but only activity in insula/somatosensory cortex correlated with the belief in a just world. Thus, our results suggest a role for insula/somatosensory cortex for the belief in a just world.

I can see the dystopian science fiction possibilities erupting out of your brains already. Imagine a terrifying Neurofascist regime, which uses neural pacemakers to prevent the “social justice” part of your brain from activating when you see soldiers killing people, or when you see innocent people being arrested. The possibilities are endless.

The science fictional possibilities are endless, that is. In terms of real-life science, this is just a tiny shred of evidence that could mean a lot of things.

Read the full scientific paper via PubMed

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