Weekly Exercises

Each week students complete short essays using one of the prompts below.

Week 2: Empathy and Morality

Tell us a bit about these thinkers. Who are Simon Baron-Cohen, Tania Singer, Tor Wager, and Paul Bloom? Where do they work, what do they study, what are they famous for?

Week 3: Rodent Models of Empathy

  1. Bartal et al claim that rats free trapped conspecifics as a form of “empathy motivated helping”. Do you agree? If so, can we tell whether it is motivated by empathic distress or compassion? If these alternatives cannot be distinguished in the current experiment, how could future experiments be designed to distinguish them?

  2. What does the Sato et al study add to our knowledge, beyond Bartal’s study?

Sato, Nobuya, Ling Tan, Kazushi Tate, and Maya Okada. “Rats Demonstrate Helping Behavior Toward a Soaked Conspecific.” Animal Cognition 18, no. 5 (2015): 1039-1047.

  1. Burkett et al claim that prairies voles console familiar individuals who have been stressed, using allogrooming, dependent on oxytocin. Can we tell whether this behavior is motivated by empathic distress (to reduce the observer’s distress) or compassion (to reduce the demonstrator’s distress), from these data? Do you agree that “the conserved neurobiology of consolation between prairie voles and humans suggests a deep homology”?

Burkett, James P., Elissar Andari, Zachary V. Johnson, Daniel C. Curry, Frans BM de Waal, and Larry J. Young. “Oxytocin-Dependent Consolation Behavior in Rodents.” Science 351, no. 6271 (2016): 375-378.

  1. Research on oxytocin has led to the hypothesis that the evolutionary origin of empathy is a mechanism selected for care of offspring (see e.g. Preston, S. D. (2013). The origins of altruism in offspring care. Psychological bulletin, 139(6), 1305; or Feldman, R. (2017). The neurobiology of human attachments. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21(2), 80-99.). Summarize this hypothesis. What, on that view, is the main difference between human and rodent empathy?

  2. Studying empathy in rodents in that it opens up the possibility of using invasive neuroscience techniques. Describe some of these techniques. What kind of neuroscientific experiments about empathy might be possible in rodents that are not possible in humans? What, on the other hand, are some obstacles to using rodents to study human empathy?

Week 4: Origins of Empathy and Morality

  1. The neuroimaging method most suited to studying babies is functional near infra-red spectroscopy (fNIRS). Describe this method. How could any of the issues raised in (1-4) be addressed by modifying one the experimental paradigms to include fNIRS.

  2. Another argument that prosociality is a biological predisposition comes from studies of heritability. Explain how behavioral genetics studies can provide evidence that prosociality is heritable. In particular, explain what it means that the heritability of prosociality increases with development (i.e. is lower in infants than it is in 7-year-old children). A useful external reference is Plomin, R., DeFries, J. C., Knopik, V. S., & Neiderhiser, J. M. (2016). Top 10 replicated findings from behavioral genetics. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(1), 3-23.

  3. Both Knafo-Noam and Dahl agree that human prosociality develops through an interaction of the child’s genetic predisposition and the social environment. From the evidence in the papers, make an argument that assigns almost all of the variability in compassion to genetics (explaining away the apparent effects of the environment); and then make an argument that assigns almost all of the variability in compassion to the social environment (explaining away the apparent effect of genetics).

  4. What is the relationship between the origin of prosociality and the origin of morality, in human development?

  5. What evidence do the Davidov and Grossman papers offer that empathy and/or compassion: (i) emerges very early, (ii) is expressed before / without learning, and/or (iii) is expressed independent of socialization (i.e. cultural influence or deliberate pedagogy).

Week 5: Psychopathy

  1. Provide a brief introduction to the key terms this week: Amygdala, VMPFC, DTI, functional connectivity, PCL-R, trait psychopathy.

  2. In 2007, Blair hypothesized that psychopathy is partly explained by a lack of emotional responding to the distress of others. We have now distinguished between personal distress and compassionate responding to others’ distress. Which of these is “lacking” in psychopathy?

  3. How does amygdala sensitivity to fearful stimuli relate to real world variability in prosocial actions?

  4. Combine Shenhav and Greene’s results and conclusions about the roles of amygdala and VMPFC in morality, and Motzkin’s findings of altered connectivity between these regions in psychopathy, to propose an updated interpretation of psychopathy.

  5. Use the data described in these readings, and the ideas from last week, to evaluate the contributions of genetic/heritable and socialization/environmental factors to the etiology of psychopathy.

Week 7: Harm Aversion

Start with either Roger Fisher’s suggestion, or any other example of real world moral judgment that reveal action-aversion. Use the evidence in these papers to make an argument explaining why/how people’s aversion to certain actions is not only determined by how much harm occurs, but also by the means by which the harm is caused. 1-2 pages.

Week 8: Plasticity and Learning

  1. What aspect of typical morality is impaired by damage to orbital / ventral medial PFC?

  2. People with damage to MPFC make more utilitarian moral judgments. Do people who favor utilitarianism (e.g. effective altruism) probably have something wrong with their MPFC?

  3. Many cortical regions are plastic early in development: that is, early damage leads to less impairment that damage in adulthood, because cortical function can be reorganized early in childhood. Is the VMPFC an exception? If so, what does the exception tell us?

  4. How much of the criminal and immoral behavior we see in the real world probably reflects dysfunction of MPFC?

Week 9: Inter-group and Empathy Gaps

  1. What is the role of the MPFC in moral judgement?

a. What has been measured, manipulated, and observed?

b. Interpretation

  1. In week 3, we learned that the oxytocin system was selected for care of offspring, and extended to a wider circle in humans. How is this hypothesis consistent with evidence that oxytocin promotes ethnocentrism and parochialism?

  2. What is the difference between psychopathy and parochial empathy (conceptually, behaviorally, and neurally)?

  3. Two people can have very different moral reactions, to witnessing the same example of another person’s suffering. Give some explanations for why.

Week 10: When Harm is Good

If you could design an fMRI experiment to study the brains of violent extremists, what hypothesis would you test? how would you test it? What would you expect to observe?

Week 11: Seeing a Guilty Mind

  1. Describe the role of the temporo-parietal junction in considering the intentions and responsibility of aggressors and victims.

  2. How would the effects on morality be different, if a person sustained focal damage to the RTPJ vs bilateral VMPFC?

  3. What role do these processes likely play in intergroup conflict? [referencing the RTPJ and VMPFC]

  4. In fundamental aspects of morality — feeling empathy for victims, and seeing aggressors as blameworthy and deserving punishment — humans make key judgments based not only on outcomes and actions, but also on perceptions of people’s mental abilities and states.

Week 13: Moral Variability

If you could design an fMRI experiment to study the neural basis of a moral disagreement between groups, what hypothesis would you test? How would you test it? What would you expect to observe?

Week 14: Morality and The Good Self

Each student group will read one of the following behavioral experiments, and then use it as inspiration to design an fMRI experiment to test the neural mechanisms associated with the motive to maintain a positive self-concept.

  1. Shu, Lisa L., Nina Mazar, Francesca Gino, Dan Ariely, and Max H. Bazerman. “Signing at the Beginning Makes Ethics Salient and Decreases Dishonest Self-Reports in Comparison to Signing at the End.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 38 (2012): 15197-15200.

  2. Bryan, Christopher J., Gabrielle S. Adams, and Benoît Monin. “When Cheating Would Make You a Cheater: Implicating the Self Prevents Unethical Behavior.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 142, no. 4 (2013): 1001.

  3. Effron, D. A., Miller, D. T., & Monin, B. (2012). “Inventing Racist Roads Not Taken: The Licensing Effect of Immoral Counterfactual Behaviors.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(6), 916.

  4. List, John A. “On the Interpretation of Giving in Dictator Games.” Journal of Political Economy 115, no. 3 (2007): 482-493.

Week 15: Science and Morality

How has the material we’ve covered this semester given you insight into what’s going on in the world around you? Your assignment this week is to identify a real world scenario (could be something ripped from the headlines, social media, or something from your own life) and write a short reflection connecting it to the course material.

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