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When we judge an action as morally right or wrong, we rely on our capacity to infer the actor's mental states (e.g., beliefs, intentions). Here, we test the hypothesis that the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), an area involved in mental state reasoning, is necessary for making moral judgments. In two experiments, we used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to disrupt neural activity in the RTPJ transiently before moral judgment (experiment 1, offline stimulation) and during moral judgment (experiment 2, online stimulation). In both experiments, TMS to the RTPJ led participants to rely less on the actor's mental states. A particularly striking effect occurred for attempted harms (e.g., actors who intended but failed to do harm): Relative to TMS to a control site, TMS to the RTPJ caused participants to judge attempted harms as less morally forbidden and more morally permissible. Thus, interfering with activity in the RTPJ disrupts the capacity to use mental states in moral judgment, especially in the case of attempted harms.
The externally observable components of human actions carry only a tiny fraction of the information that matters. Human observers are vastly more interested in perceiving or inferring the mental states - the beliefs, desires and intentions - that lie behind the observable shell. If a person checks her watch, is she uncertain about the time, late for an appointment, or bored with the conversation? If a person shoots his friend on a hunting trip, did he intend revenge or just mistake his friend for a partridge? The mechanism people use to infer and reason about another person’s states of mind is called a ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM). One of the most striking discoveries of recent human cognitive neuroscience is that there is a group of brain regions in human cortex that selectively and specifically underlie this mechanism.
The importance of mental states for behavior prediction is especially clear when the person doing the behavior is misinformed: that is, when the actor has a false belief. False beliefs therefore figure heavily in the study of ToM. The original “False Belief task” was developed for use with pre-school aged children. In the basic design, a child watches while a puppet places an object in location A. The puppet leaves the scene and the object is transferred to location B. The puppet returns and the child is asked to predict where the puppet will look for the object. Three-year-olds say the puppet will look in location B, where the object actually is; older children say the puppet will look in location A, where the puppet last saw the object.
The US military also hopes to use TMS to keep soldiers fighting, without the need to stop for sleep.