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The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment

Neuron, Vol. 60, pp. 940-950, December 2008

11 Pages Posted: 30 Nov 2010  

Joshua Buckholtz

Vanderbilt University, Neuroscience Program

Christopher L. Asplund

Vanderbilt University

Paul E. Dux

Vanderbilt University

David H. Zald

Vanderbilt University

John C. Gore

Vanderbilt University

Owen D. Jones

Vanderbilt University - Law School & Dept. of Biological Sciences

Rene Marois

Vanderbilt University - Department of Psychology
Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience

Abstract

This article reports the discovery, from the first full-scale law and neuroscience experiment, of the brain activity underlying punishment decisions.

We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity of subjects as they read hypothetical scenarios about harm-causing protagonists and then decided whether to punish and, if so, how much.

The key variables were: a) presence or absence of excusing, justifying, or otherwise mitigating factors (such as acting under duress); and b) harm severity (which ranged from a stolen CD to a rape/murder/torture combination).

Findings include:

(1) Analytic and emotional brain circuitries are jointly involved, yet quite separately deployed, during punishment decisions. Specifically:

(a) Analytic circuitry of the brain - centered on the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex - tracks how responsible a protagonist is for harmful behavior (but does not determine punishment levels across varying harms);

(b) Conversely, activity in brain circuitry important for experiencing emotion - the amygdala, for example - predicts punishment levels across the range of crime severity (but is uncorrelated with responsibility levels).

(2) Increased activity in a component of the so-called Theory of Mind (perspective-taking) network (the temporo-parietal junction) preceded increased activity in the analytic region, during responsibility assessments.

(3) The analytic region deployed in distinguishing between high and low responsibility for harmful behavior in third-party contexts is the same region that is most involved in punishing unfair economic behavior in two-party interactions.

Keywords: punishment, neuroscience, judging, decision making, sentencing, judges, jurors, law and neuroscience, brain, brain imaging, brain scan, neuroscience, functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI, neuroimaging, behavioral biology, law and emotion, cognitive neuroscience, cognitive psychology

Suggested Citation

Buckholtz, Joshua and Asplund, Christopher L. and Dux, Paul E. and Zald, David H. and Gore, John C. and Jones, Owen D. and Marois, Rene, The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment. Neuron, Vol. 60, pp. 940-950, December 2008. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1715509

Joshua Buckholtz

Vanderbilt University, Neuroscience Program ( email )

Nashville, TN 37232-0685
United States

Christopher L. Asplund

Vanderbilt University ( email )

Nashville, TN 37240
United States

Paul E. Dux

Vanderbilt University ( email )

Nashville, TN 37240
United States

David H. Zald

Vanderbilt University ( email )

Nashville, TN 37240
United States

John C. Gore

Vanderbilt University ( email )

Nashville, TN 37240
United States

Owen D. Jones (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School & Dept. of Biological Sciences ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States

HOME PAGE: http://law.vanderbilt.edu/bio/owen-jones

Rene Marois

Vanderbilt University - Department of Psychology
Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience ( email )

Nashville, TN 37240
United States

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