This Is Your Brain on Punishment

A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility shows an electric chair and gurney August 29, 2001 in Lucasville, Ohio.
Photo: Mike Simons/Getty Images

How and why humans punish is a fascinating behavioral question, and a vital one in as punishment-happy a society as the United States. Even though we tend to see punishment as meted out by the state, it’s the result of individual choices — whether it’s jurors deciding to convict someone or voters voting for tough-on-crime politicians who then push for harsher sentences. A new brain-imaging study in Nature Neuroscience adds a couple of interesting building blocks to our emerging understanding of the neuroscience of human punishment.

For the study, the researchers used an fMRI machine to examine the brains of 30 volunteers as they were “read a series of brief scenarios that described how the actions of a protagonist named John brought harm to either Steve or Mary,” as the press release puts it. Two aspects of the story were switched up for experimental purposes: First, in some versions the harm done to Steve or Mary was described in a particularly gruesome manner, while in others it was related in a straightforward way. Second, in some versions it was made clear that John was fully at fault for the action in question, while in others the story read like it was an accident. The participants were then asked how much they would punish John for what he had done.

There are two noteworthy findings here: First, the more graphically the carnage was described, the greater the punishment. That means that, in theory, the same judge might give Defendant A more prison time than Defendant B, even if the crimes are identical, simply because of the existence of photos or video of the crime in question. (Defense attorneys, take note.)

Except, that is, when it’s clear the harm was accidental: “[T]his higher punishment level only applied when the participants considered the resulting harm to be intentional. When they considered it to be unintentional, the way it was described didn’t have any effect.”

I’ve written before about how the brain isn’t monolithic — it’s got a lot of moving parts, some of which occasionally override or clash with one another. So while it’s certainly an oversimplification of the cognitive processes at work here, I sort of like the idea of a “higher court” in your brain telling its “lower courts” not to get too worked up over some gruesome imagery: “Dude, I know — it’s horrible what happened. But we can’t go overboard on this, because it was clearly an accident.”