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: Perceived intentions influence brain response

Related Stories

Perceived intentions influence brain response

August 11, 2010

People generally like to see generous people rewarded and selfish people punished. Now, new research reveals a critical link between how we perceive another's intentions and our evaluation of their behavior. The study, published ...

Brain's 'social enforcer' centers identified

October 3, 2007

Researchers have identified brain structures that process the threat of punishment for violating social norms. They said that their findings suggest a neural basis for treating children, adolescents, and even immature adults ...

Free will is an illusion, biologist says

March 3, 2010

( -- When biologist Anthony Cashmore claims that the concept of free will is an illusion, he's not breaking any new ground. At least as far back as the ancient Greeks, people have wondered how humans seem to have ...

The court will now call its expert witness: the brain

November 20, 2009

( -- Will advances in neuroscience make the justice system more accurate and unbiased? Or could brain-based testing wrongly condemn some and trample the civil liberties of others? The new field of neurolaw is ...

Insects master abstract concepts

May 3, 2012

An insect's brain is capable of constructing and handling abstract concepts. It can even use two different concepts simultaneously in order to make a decision when faced with a new situation.

Could brain abnormality predict drug addiction?

October 22, 2008

( -- Scientists at The University of Nottingham are to use MRI technology to discover whether abnormalities in the decision-making part of the brain could make some people more likely to become addicted to drugs.

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. ...

Machine Translates Thoughts into Speech in Real Time

December 21, 2009

( -- By implanting an electrode into the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, scientists have demonstrated how to wirelessly transmit neural signals to a speech synthesizer. The "thought-to-speech" process ...


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.