Determining responsibility and assigning punishment governed by different brain systems

December 10, 2008

A new study reveals that humans use different neural mechanisms for determining criminal responsibility and assigning an appropriate punishment. The research, published by Cell Press in the December 11th issue of the journal Neuron, provides fascinating insight into brain systems that may explain how thousands of years of reliance on human sanctions to enforce social norms gave rise to our current criminal justice system.

Impartial "third-party" decision making is used in our legal system for assessing responsibility and determining an appropriate punishment. "Despite its critical utility in facilitating prosocial behavior and maintaining social order, little is known about the origins of, and neural mechanisms underlying, our ability to make third-party legal decisions," offers co-senior study authors Dr. René Marois, a neuroscientist from the Department of Psychology, and Owen Jones, a professor of Law and Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

To explore the neural mechanisms associated with these processes, Marois and Jones, along with graduate neuroscience student Joshua Buckholtz, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan subjects while they made decisions about appropriate punishments for crime scenarios that varied both in perpetrator responsibility and crime severity. The researchers found that activity within key brain regions associated with social and emotional processing tracked punishment magnitude for a range of criminal scenarios. "These results accord well with prior work pointing to social and emotional influences on economic decision making and moral reasoning and provide preliminary neurobiological support for a proposed role of emotions in legal decision making," explains Dr. Marois.

Interestingly, activity in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (rDLPFC) appeared to play a key role in deciding whether or not to punish perpetrators on the basis of criminal responsibility. Previous work implicated rDLPFC activity in a second-party punishment system, such as when subjects decide whether or not to punish a partner by rejecting an unfair economic deal proposed by that partner.

These results suggest that a common neural mechanism may be involved in punishing unfair economic behavior in a two-party interaction and deciding whether or not to punish someone based on an assessment of criminal responsibility in a third-party interaction. "On the basis of the convergence between neural circuitry mediating second-party norm enforcement and impartial third-party punishment, we conjecture that our modern legal system may have arisen by building on preexisting cognitive mechanisms that support fairness-related behaviors in two-party interactions," suggests Professor Jones.

Source: Cell Press

Explore further: Crime and punishment: The neurobiological roots of modern justice

Related Stories

Fault trumps gruesome evidence when it comes to punishment

August 3, 2014

Issues of crime and punishment, vengeance and justice date back to the dawn of human history, but it is only in the last few years that scientists have begun exploring the basic nature of the complex neural processes in the ...

Punishment can enhance performance, academics find

March 13, 2013

The stick can work just as well as the carrot in improving our performance, a team of academics at The University of Nottingham has found. A study led by researchers from the University's School of Psychology, published recently ...

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Cow embryos reveal new type of chromosome chimera

May 27, 2016

I've often wondered what happens between the time an egg is fertilized and the time the ball of cells that it becomes nestles into the uterine lining. It's a period that we know very little about, a black box of developmental ...

Shaving time to test antidotes for nerve agents

February 29, 2016

Imagine you wanted to know how much energy it took to bike up a mountain, but couldn't finish the ride to the peak yourself. So, to get the total energy required, you and a team of friends strap energy meters to your bikes ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.