Monash: A new study has thrown light on how people can become killers in certain situations, showing how brain activity varies according to whether or not killing is seen as justified. Participants in the study played video games in which they imagined themselves to be shooting innocent civilians (unjustified violence) or enemy soldiers (justified violence). Their brain activity was recorded via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they played.
Dr Molenberghs said the results provided important insights into how
people in certain situations, such as war, are able to commit extreme
violence against others.
“When participants imagined themselves shooting civilians compared to
soldiers, greater activation was found in the lateral orbitofrontal
cortex (OFC), an important brain area involved in making moral
decisions,” Dr Molenberghs said.
“The more guilt participants felt about shooting civilians, the
greater the response in the lateral OFC. When shooting enemy soldiers,
no activation was seen in lateral OFC.”
The results show that the neural mechanisms that are typically
implicated with harming others become less active when the violence
against a particular group is seen as justified.
“The findings show that when a person is responsible for what they
see as justified or unjustified violence, they will have different
feelings of guilt associated with that – for the first time we can see
how this guilt relates to specific brain activation,” Dr Molenberghs
The researchers hope to further investigate how people become
desensitised to violence and how personality and group membership of
both perpetrator and victim influence these processes.
Dr Molenberghs is director of the Monash Social Neuroscience Lab,
which studies morality, empathy and group membership in order to get a
better understanding of how complex social problems such as racism and
in-group bias develop.
The lab has received funding from the Australian Research Council and the Heart Foundation.