Driving with Your Brain on Morality

by on December 1, 2012

Most, if not all of us would cringe at the thought of purposely running over a squirrel while driving down the road, but would we put our lives at risk to go help an injured squirrel that someone else had hit?

We face moral judgments every day, whether at work, at play or behind the wheel. And our brain does some very interesting things when faced with such decisions.

Before we further examine the way our brain processes moral judgments, let’s look at what they are. Science Daily pegs moral judgments as those that carry the underlying theme of being “right or wrong.” Practical decisions, on the other hand, are those that instead rely on logic, or if a decision or action may be “good or bad” for the person making the decision.

Many may say it is morally “right” not to purposely hit a squirrel. And it may be morally “right” for some to go help an injured squirrel on the side of the road, even if someone else caused the injury.

However, if that injured squirrel is on the side of a busy highway or other treacherous road where we could easily end up injured ourselves, well, logic may tell us to stay in our car and keep on driving down the road.

What to do, what to do?

The decision we make depends largely on how we first view the decision, whether we categorize it as one of a moral or a pragmatic nature. If we put it into the moral category, our decision is likely to be swift and extreme – but also flexible. A study published in journal PLoS ONE says so. If we view the injured squirrel in a moral framework, our decision may play out as follows:

Pull over now to save the squirrel! Take off your shirt to use as a blanket! Oh wait – there’s a semi coming. Never mind.

If, on the other hand, pragmatism takes over when we view the injured squirrel, the study shows reactions are likely to be far less extreme and far less flexible.

It doesn’t make sense to risk my own life to save the life of a squirrel, especially since a semi is barreling down right behind me.

What else our brain does with morality

Our brains are also able to detect, pretty much instantly, whether or not a harmful action we’re seeing was done intentionally or accidentally. This assessment comes from a different study, available for pre-publication preview in the Journal of Neurophysiology.

The study showed participants video sequences of people being harmed accidentally as well as other sequences that showed intentional harm from a baseball bat. Specific brain activity soared when viewers watched the intentional harm, activity that was absent during the viewing of the accidental sequences.

From a pragmatic standpoint, all this insight into your brain on morality may help you better understand what’s going on in your head as you witness everything around you, shedding light on why you’re compelled to make certain decisions. From a moral standpoint, well, you could very easily be a savior for an injured squirrel.



  • Jay J. Van Bavel, Dominic J. Packer, Ingrid Johnsen Haas, William A. Cunningham. The Importance of Moral Construal: Moral versus Non-Moral Construal Elicits Faster, More Extreme, Universal Evaluations of the Same Actions. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (11).
  • J. Decety, S. Cacioppo. The speed of morality: a high-density electrical neuroimaging study. Journal of Neurophysiology, 2012.

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