Juries in criminal cases typically decide if someone is guilty, then a judge determines a suitable level of punishment. New research confirms that these two separate assessments of guilt and punishment – though related — are calculated in different parts of the brain. In fact, researchers found that they can disrupt and change one decision without affecting the other.
New work by researchers at Vanderbilt University and Harvard University confirms that a specific area of the brain, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, is crucial to punishment decisions. Researchers predicted and found that by altering brain activity in this brain area, they could change how subjects punished hypothetical defendants without changing the amount of blame placed on the defendants.
“We were able to significantly change the chain of decision-making and reduce punishment for crimes without affecting blameworthiness,” said René Marois, professor and chair of psychology at Vanderbilt and co-principal author of the study. “This strengthens evidence that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex integrates information from other parts of the brain to determine punishment and shows a clear neural dissociation between punishment decisions and moral responsibility judgements.”
The research titled “From Blame to Punishment: Disrupting Prefrontal Cortex Activity Reveals Norm Enforcement Mechanisms” was published on Sept. 17 in the journal Neuron.
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