Neuroscience Made Me Do It

The authors of a forthcoming paper in Psychological Science investigated “whether learning about neuroscience can influence judgments in a real-world situation: deciding how someone who commits a crime should be punished.” Tania Lombrozo explains the experiment:

The motivating intuition is this: to hold someone responsible for her actions, she must have acted with free will. But if her actions were the result of brute, mechanical processes that fully determined their effects — a view that a neuroscientific understanding of the mind might engender — then she didn’t have free will, so she shouldn’t be held morally responsible or punished too harshly. … [I]f learning about neuroscience suggests that the world is deterministic, and if determinism is judged incompatible with free will, then learning about neuroscience could have implications for how people assign moral responsibility and dole out retributive punishment.

To test these ideas, the researchers had participants read articles that were either about neuroscience or about other topics (nuclear power, natural headache remedies). The neuroscience articles highlighted the mechanistic, neural bases for human decisions….

After the participants read the neuroscience articles and the alternatives, researchers presented them with “a seemingly distinct study for which they read about a student’s violent crime” and asked them to assign a punishment:

The researchers found that, on average, participants who read the neuroscience articles assigned shorter prison sentences to [student Jonathan] Scarrow and found Scarrow less blameworthy than those who read the other articles. Bolstered by three additional studies reported in the paper, the findings suggest that learning about neuroscience reduces belief in free will, which in turn makes people less inclined towards retributive punishment.