Parsing the Behavioral and Brain Mechanisms of Third-Party Punishment

15 Pages Posted: 9 Sep 2016 Last revised: 26 Jan 2017

Matthew R. Ginther

Vanderbilt University - Law School; Vanderbilt University - Neuroscience Graduate Program

Richard J. Bonnie

University of Virginia - School of Law

Morris B. Hoffman

Second Judicial District Court Judge, State of Colorado

Francis X. Shen

University of Minnesota Law School

Kenneth W. Simons

University of California, Irvine School of Law

Owen D. Jones

Vanderbilt University - Law School & Dept. of Biological Sciences

Rene Marois

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

Date Written: September 7, 2016

Abstract

The evolved capacity for third-party punishment is considered crucial to the emergence and maintenance of elaborate human social organization and is central to the modern provision of fairness and justice within society. Although it is well established that the mental state of the offender and the severity of the harm he caused are the two primary predictors of punishment decisions, the precise cognitive and brain mechanisms by which these distinct components are evaluated and integrated into a punishment decision are poorly understood.

Using a brain-scanning technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we implemented a novel experimental design to functionally dissociate the mechanisms underlying evaluation, integration, and decision. This work revealed that multiple parts of the brain – some analytic, some subconscious or emotional – work in a systematic pattern to decide blameworthiness, assess harms, integrate those two decisions, and then ultimately select how a person should be punished. Specifically, harm and mental state evaluations are conducted in two different brain networks and then combined in the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate areas of the brain, while the amygdala acts as a pivotal hub of the interaction between harm and mental state. This integrated information is then used by the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex when the brain is making a decision on punishment amount.

These findings provide a blueprint of the brain mechanisms by which neutral third parties make punishment decisions.

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

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Ginther, Matthew R. and Bonnie, Richard J. and Hoffman, Morris B. and Shen, Francis X. and Simons, Kenneth W. and Jones, Owen D. and Marois, Rene, Parsing the Behavioral and Brain Mechanisms of Third-Party Punishment (September 7, 2016). Journal of Neuroscience. Vol. 36, 9420-9434, 2016; UC Irvine School of Law Research Paper No. 2016-50; Vanderbilt Law Research Paper No. 17-01. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2835717

Matthew R. Ginther

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

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

Vanderbilt University - Neuroscience Graduate Program ( email )

465 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37232
United States

Richard J. Bonnie

University of Virginia - School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

Morris B. Hoffman

Second Judicial District Court Judge, State of Colorado ( email )

Denver, CO
United States

Francis X. Shen

University of Minnesota Law School ( email )

Minneapolis, MN
United States

Kenneth W. Simons

University of California, Irvine School of Law ( email )

401 E. Peltason Dr.
Room 3800H
Irvine, CA 92697-1000
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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