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Entice Or Punish – Neural Signature of Social Norm Compliance

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It’s difficult to imagine a society without an established legal system of punishment. While it might be worthwhile to speculate over some futuristic, “therapeutic” society, there’s at the moment the need for some way to alter a person’s aberrant personality or behavior against their will claimed by those in political power. In other words, there exist social institutions to dispense pain or more precisely “harm,” and this is a “dirty business” — dispensing harm. Inflicting pain may not be the best way to get somebody to change. To inflict pain deliberately, and to do it right, requires that some morally acceptable way be found of doing it. Hence, the ethics of punishment takes center stage in the study of justice and liberty. This is not the place to discuss the history of such efforts, which utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) made a central part of their pleasure-pain considerations, nor is this the place to discuss how the practiced discipline of dispensing harm became part of American culture up through John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. Others (Massaro 1992) have told that story well. Instead, this is the place to raise important moral questions about the appropriateness of a punishment institution. Olen & Barry (1992) have presented an oft-cited list of the five things which make punishment morally acceptable, as follows:


suffering — punishment must involve pain, harm, suffering, unpleasantness, or some other consequence which is normally considered as negative or a counter-reaction. This is a principle derived from Natural Law, because in nature, it is believed that equilibrium is sought between opposing forces, and restoring equilibrium sometimes requires unpleasant things to happen.

violation — punishment must be a response to a transgression of some sort, either a law or a rule. Something that isn’t written down, or intended to be followed by punishment, should not be punished. For example, just because you had a bad day at work cannot mean that you were punished for that. Sometimes, pain occurs in life as a normal part of life. That’s not punishment. It’s just pain. This is the basic distinction between “pain” and “harm.” The first is unintentional, while the latter is intentional, or for an acceptable reason.

judgment — punishment must be limited to those who have been accused, tried, and found guilty. All three elements are necessary. Accusation alone cannot be the basis of punishment. Neither can arrest, apprehension, or simple imprisonment. You can imprison somebody in “time out,” but you haven’t really punished them until you’ve gone through the process. Punishment is the process. Anything else would be an injustice.

externality — punishment must be carried out by someone else other than the offender, and someone other than who is close to the offender. In other words, someone distant, impartial, neutral, unknown, or external to the offender is preferred. Punishment is a professional’s game, and it should be played by professionals. While some ethical systems might make a big deal out of “self-punishment,” “guilty feelings,” or a “twinge of conscience,” when punishment is called for, the time is long past for letting the offender punish themselves (this would be masochism, anyway) or think that a close friend will “go easy” on them.

rightful authority — punishment must be carried out by a legally constituted authority which not only has the responsibility to punish, but additional responsibilities to maintain social or moral order. In most cases, this means the government or some duly elected or appointed official who has a wider range of responsibilities. The reason for this is that if the only duties an official had was punishment, this would be a prescription for tyranny.

These may all seem like strict standards for punishment, but they are all necessary. It is important that prisons not become cesspools of human misery, and it is just as important they not become painless interludes in a life of crime. Some pain may be necessary to motivate change, but we don’t really know enough about human nature to calibrate or fine-tune the pain. The varieties of pain that result from punishment are a mix of physical, mental, social, and economic pain (Newman 1985). Of these, mental pain is the most modern form (Shaw 1946) since the progressive movement of history in corrections has been away from physiological torture to psychological torture (Rothman 1980; Foucault 1995). Prisons are places where pain is more or less controlled, and time is the instrument of torture. Clearly, as Amnesty International (at their torture test website) believes, prisons are places of torture, but not of the type where the offender says anything to make the pain stop. Freed from certain abuses, most people accept prisons as an acceptable institution (Rawls 1955). Rawls (1955) offers further conditions on justifiable punishment, as follows:

John Rawls’ definition of Punishment
A person is said to suffer punishment whenever he is legally deprived of some of the normal rights of a citizen on the ground that he has violated a rule of law, the violation having been established by trial according to the due process of law, provided that the deprivation is carried out by the recognized legal authorities of the state, that the rule of law clearly specifies both the offense and the attached penalty, that the courts construe statutes strictly, and that the statute was on the books prior to the time of the offense.

Now, 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 differently in the criminal justice system, since the neural circuitry for processing the threat of such punishment is not as developed in younger individuals as it is in adults.
The researchers also said that their identification of the brain’s “social norm compliance” structures also opens the way to exploring whether psychopaths have deficiencies in these structures’ circuitry.

“In this study, we sought to uncover the neural circuits involved in forced norm compliance,” wrote the researchers. “This question touches the very foundations of human sociality because the establishment of large-scale cooperation through social norms is a unique feature of the human species.

Norm compliance among humans is either based on people’s voluntary compliance with standards of behavior that are viewed as normatively legitimate or on the enforcement of compliance through punishment. Although much compliance is voluntary, there can be little doubt that social order would quickly break down in the absence of punishment threats because a minority of noncompliers can trigger a process that leads to widespread noncompliance due to the conditional nature of many people’s compliance.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study that examines the brain processes involved in humans’ behavioral response to the threat of punishment for social norm violations,” wrote the researchers.

In their experiments, the researchers instructed one person to decide how much money from a shared pot to give to a second recipient. In a control condition, the second person was merely a passive recipient of whatever amount the first person decided. However, in the punishment condition, the recipient could decide to punish the first person by spending all or part of another pot of money, which would reduce the first person’s earnings.

During the control and punishment conditions, the first person’s brain was scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging. This widely used scanning technique involves using harmless magnetic fields and radio signals to measure blood flow in brain regions, which reflects brain activity.

The researchers found that the scanned subjects showed activation of specific areas of the prefrontal cortex while they were making decisions that they knew could bring punishment. The areas that were activated were known to be involved in control of decision-making related to fairness and evaluation of punishing stimuli.

To establish that the activated brain areas were specifically involved in social punishment, the researchers also tested the subjects’ brain responses when a computer and not a person meted out the punishment. The researchers found that such nonsocial punishment produced significantly less activation in the brain areas.

The researchers also tested whether “Machiavellian” personality traits–selfishness and opportunism–affected people’s responses on the tests. To assess the subjects’ Machiavellian leanings, the researchers gave them a questionnaire that determined those tendencies.

The researchers found that people who scored higher on Machiavellism transferred less money during the control condition and more during the threat of punishment. The Machiavellians also showed higher activation of key brain areas involved in social norm compliance, found the researchers.

“Therefore, Machiavellian subjects earned the highest incomes because they earned most in the control condition and were best at escaping punishment in the social punishment condition,” they wrote.

The researchers said their findings could have implications for understanding the basis of psychopathic behavior, since people with lesions in the prefrontal areas show an inability to behave in appropriate ways, even though they understand social norms.

Thus, a dysfunction in the areas involved “might also underlie certain psychopathological disorders characterized by excessively selfish tendencies and a failure to obey basic social norms,” they wrote.

Identification of the brain’s social norm compliance circuitry “might have implications for the criminal justice system,” concluded the researchers. “As these brain areas are not yet fully developed in children, adolescents, or even young adults, our results are consistent with the view that these groups may be less able to activate the evaluative and inhibitory neural circuitry necessary for the appropriate processing of punishment threats. Thus, our results might provide support for the view that the criminal justice system should treat children, adolescents, and immature adults differently from adults,” they wrote.

The researchers include Manfred Spitzer of University of Ulm, University Hospital for Psychiatry, Psychiatry III and Transfer Center for Neurosciences and Learning in Ulm; Urs Fischbacher of Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, University of Zurich in Zurich; Bärbel Herrnberger and Georg Grön of University of Ulm, University Hospital for Psychiatry, Psychiatry III in Ulm; and Ernst Fehr of Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, University of Zurich and Collegium Helveticum in Zürich.


Golconda, 1953,

80,7x100,6 cm, oil

Neuron. 2007 Oct 4;56(1):185-196.

 The Neural Signature of Social Norm Compliance.

 Spitzer M, Fischbacher U, Herrnberger B, Grön G, Fehr E.

University of Ulm, University Hospital for Psychiatry, Psychiatry III, Leimgrubenweg 1214, 89075 Ulm, Germany; Transfer Center for Neurosciences and Learning, Beim Alten Fritz 2, 89075 Ulm, Germany.

All known human societies establish social order by punishing violators of social norms. However, little is known about how the brain processes the punishment threat associated with norm violations. We use fMRI to study the neural circuitry behind social norm compliance by comparing a treatment in which norm violations can be punished with a control treatment in which punishment is impossible. Individuals’ increase in norm compliance when punishment is possible exhibits a strong positive correlation with activations in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Moreover, lateral orbitofrontal cortex activity is strongly correlated with Machiavellian personality characteristics. These findings indicate a neural network involved in social norm compliance that might constitute an important basis for human sociality. Different activations of this network reveal individual differences in the behavioral response to the punishment threat and might thus provide a deeper understanding of the neurobiological sources of pathologies such as antisocial personality disorder.

Written by huehueteotl

October 9, 2007 at 3:47 pm

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