Molly Crockett: Morals, Media & The Mind

Imagine a drug that could potentially refine our moral code or our perhaps enhance our decision making process. Molly Crockett is an award winning neuroscientist whose work investigates this intriguing area, exploring the unique intersection between altruism, morality and economic decision-making.

Crockett’s particular area, moral behaviour has become increasingly popular due to the rapid development and insights allowed by neuroscience. By investigating the mechanisms behind social decision-making, Molly Crockett and her lab have made some startling discoveries about our moral behaviour and what exactly motivates us to do the things that we do. We sat down with Molly to discuss her work in the area of moral reasoning, her controversial study relating to hyper-altruism and why the media tends to get in the way of good science.


Could you start by telling us what drew you into this particular area?

I’ve always been interested in understanding why people do the things that they do, particularly when they’re faced with dilemmas where they have to trade off some benefit to themselves against a greater good or a benefit for other people. I’ve studied many different aspects of human behaviour ranging from neuroscience to behavioural economics, to psychology and the work that I’ve been doing over the past four or five years has really been integrating those different approaches to understanding moral behaviour.

You mention the word ‘moral behaviour’ and it’s obviously something that takes up a large part of your work. But how to you actually define ‘morals’?

That’s a great question and one that doesn’t have a straightforward answer. There’s been a great deal of ink spilled over the last several thousand years about what morality is and of course a lot of that has been in the area of philosophy. I collaborate with philosophers who add a lot to this conversation. In my research we start with the definition of morality as this: we think it’s immoral to profit financially from the pain of an innocent person. And already as I’m saying this I can think of potential objections to that argument. It depends what you’re going to do with the money. If you’re going to give it to a really sick person and save a life then of course that’s moral.

There’s a distinction between what kinds of behaviours count as moral or immoral and although the major ethical traditions quite often agree on the appropriateness of many behaviours, there’s a difference in the reasoning of why that behaviour is right or wrong. You can use that reasoning to devise different situations where different ethical traditions will give different answers about what’s the right thing to do. The classic example that’s been used quite a lot in psychological research is these problems where you have to decide whether it’s appropriate to harm one person to save others harm and generally in these situations consequentialist theories say it is appropriate to kill one person to save five lives whereas a deontological perspective would say that’s unacceptable.

Let’s talk about your study that gained a lot of media attention in 2014 and the term that kind of came out of it, hyper-altruism. You showed that on average people are more reluctant to profit from someone else’s pain than their own. Then you integrated the notion that prescription drugs can ‘potentially’ affect people’s decision making processes.

Yeah, what we’ve done in a few experiments is look at how giving people a drug that temporarily alters their brain chemistry can affect their decision making and judgements. We’ve looked at the effects of targeting dopamine and serotonin in the brain and we’ve found quite different effects of these different systems on moral decision making. The drug which temporarily elevates dopamine levels in the brain makes people more self-interested, they’re less hyper-altruistic as you say, whereas the serotonin drug increases how much money people are willing to give up to avoid pain, so they’re more harm averse following a drug that increases serotonin function.

What element were you most surprised by in this study?

I’m not sure we were that surprised about the drug effects because we had predicted those effects based on our readings of previous work in the area. One thing that was surprising was how big the effect was, particularly for the serotonin drug. It effectively doubled the amount of money people were willing to pay to prevent pain to themselves and others which is a fairly large affect size for that kind of study.

One of the headlines that came out after this study was, ‘Can Drugs Change Our Morals?’ And I know you were suspicious of the media attention it raised and the misinterpretation of the findings, so can you explain what the study was really about?

I think there are two major goals of pharmacological research, the primary goal is to contribute to a large body of knowledge about how neurotransmitters in the brain affect behaviour and brain function. Building up our knowledge in this area is a bit like building a very big wall and each study is one brick in that wall, so the sweeping conclusions that one can draw from any single study are necessarily limited, but the accumulation of evidence over a large number of studies can give us an increasingly complete picture of how these neurotransmitter systems like serotonin and dopamine affect the way that the brain computes value and uses those values to make decisions. So the first and primary goal of the study was to add to that body of knowledge by doing a carefully controlled experiment where we manipulated serotonin and dopamine and investigated how that manipulation affected people’s moral decision making.

Our secondary goal and why I feel dedicated to communicating it to the public despite the obvious risk of it being misinterpreted, is I think it’s an important message to get across that the way we make judgments and moral decisions is not fixed or set in stone. These processes are flexible and susceptible to influence from factors in our environment that shape our brain chemistry like stress, diet, social interaction. And so many of the intractable conflicts that centre around moral issues like political conflict and ideological conflict I think are predicated on a belief that people’s morality is fixed and can’t change. Indeed if you persuade people that morality is changeable and malleable people are more likely to be willing to dialog with those who disagree with them. So these demonstrations of how a single dose of a drug can affect our moral behaviour is a really powerful illustration of just how sensitive our morals are to the context and that’s something that I think will benefit the general consumer.

If there are so many sociological and physical variations then how do you draw effective conclusions from findings obtained in a confined environment like a lab?

It’s a very good point that studies in a lab are necessarily stripped down from the rich context that we experience in our daily lives and the reason that we have these stripped down environments is that we can achieve a very high degree of experimental control. We can tinker with the mechanics and pull one lever and look at the effect of that on the whole system rather than pulling multiple levers at the same time. That being said we can learn quite a lot from investigating behaviour out in the real world as well and so what we’re doing right now is combining real world observations with lab studies to get a better handle on how decision making works at a cognitive level and also how different kinds of drugs affect those decisions. One thing we’re doing is going to festivals and measuring pro-social behaviour at those festivals and also asking people about recent substance use. This is of course a correlational approach. We can’t do causal experiments out in the field but we can look for relationships between different kinds of substances and altruistic behaviour and triangulate that against our lab experiments where we have more control and thereby get at causal effects.

I think one of the most ominous terms that we use in our society is, “studies show…”. It seems as if every time you have a discussion with someone you’re immediately muted when someone mentions those two words. What’s your response to that institutional term?

It’s a bit of an intellectual sleight of hand. When someone says “studies show”, I immediately think, how many studies? What are the details of those studies? In science we’re trained to be sceptical and quite a lot of studies get published that are not valid pieces of work unfortunately. I would like to think that the majority of published work is a reflection of the underlying state of nature but as we’re coming to see there are many pieces of data that we thought were very reliable that have turned out to be false positives. This is becoming increasingly clear in psychology and the good news is that researchers are doing a ton of work to update research practices and make sure that research leads to more reliable data. But I think it would be possible to trawl the internet and find a couple of studies to make any point you want to make. So “studies show” therefore becomes very empty.

In your TED talk you talk about the way that the brain is tricked into making a decision, and one of the things I was surprised about was how you were approached by the marketing departments about mood boosting endorsements. Do you think we’re in some ways hijacked by our consumerist culture and does that affect our ability to make good decisions?

Well this is a huge question and there’s not really a good single answer. One thing you pointed out that’s becoming increasingly clear in the research is that attention matters a great deal and indeed what we’re attending to at the time we make a decision has a strong impact on what gets valued. So there’s been some work done showing that it’s true that we look at the things that we value more, but we also value more the things that we look at for longer. They’ve done experiments where they’re asking people to choose from different products and they play around with how long they’re presented on the screen for and it’s been shown that if you get somebody to look longer at an item then they are more likely to choose it. And this is a principle that’s already been recognised by marketers. Whatever products are placed at eye level are most likely to be purchased. Whatever gets your attention is most likely to be chosen. That’s one of the longest recognised principles in the psychology of decision making.

Whatever comes to mind most easily is going to be over represented in your choices, so the media has a huge responsibility in that regard. By devoting a lot of air time to terrorist attacks, health scares, other stores that push our fear buttons, it makes us more likely to believe those events are very likely to occur. And of course that affects public opinion on for example, whether we should support the admittance of refugees into the country. So these issues do matter for real life behaviour and the media has a strong responsibility to think about the effects of what they do.

Molly Crockett will be appearing at an event organized by 52 Insights and the Valise Network on the 24th of February.