What Your Brain Looks Like When You're Selling Out

"For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" asks the gospel of Mark. Verily, I know not. But in contemplating the sale of his soul for gain, saith this study, such a man doth activate his temporoparietal junction, and also, lo, his ventrolateral prefrontal cortex stirreth, and great is the blood flow therein. And this is of interest because those regions are not very active when people negotiate over a price or do some other calculation of what economists call "utility." So, argue the authors, their research offers evidence that "sacred values" are a different mental experience, with a different basis in the brain, than is haggling over how much money you'd need to swallow a bug or go work for Goldman Sachs.


This matters because of the presumption, still common in policy circles, that humans in conflict can safely be presumed rational actors—people who can and will set a price on their actions. Rational actors seek to avoid losses above a certain level; they want to avoid their own destruction; they can be bought (if not with money, than perhaps with land, jobs, schools or satellite dishes). But part of what makes sacred values sacred, as Gregory S. Berns and his colleagues write here, is that they are enacted without regard to the consequences.

This difference is the basis of the old saw (attributed, as such things are, to Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and the other usual suspects) about the wit who asks a woman if she would sleep with him for 5 million pounds. After she says she might, he lowers his bid to 5 pounds, and she asks "what kind of a woman do you take me for?" Answer: "Madame, that is established. Now we are haggling over the price." Sacred matters are defined as that which is never haggled over, even at enormous cost, even unto death. Religion. Language. National identity. The land of our ancestors.

For some time now the anthropologist Scott Atran (a co-author on this paper) has been pointing out that this aspect of human psychology is a problem in many political and military conflicts. People defending a sacred value will not trade its incarnation (land, nuclear fuel rods, a city) for iPads, or even for peace. They may be more moved by an apology or some other symbolic concession that brings no economically measurable benefit, but which speaks to their transcendental needs. So a rationalist, supposedly realist, approach, which seeks to find their price, will fail. (And by the way, such people need not be a majority on either side, as even people who would not die for a sacred value will feel themselves bound to honor it when the true believers demand.)

On the other hand, if the rationalist model is right, then "sacred values" are just rhetoric and emotion, covering the usual game of incentives and disincentives. Atran, a resolutely empirical anthropologist, has been gathering evidence for the sacral theory. That's part of the context for this experiment, which was published last March in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

Obviously, getting people to traduce their values is impossible in modern academia, in part because it would be an evil deed. But Berns et al. came up with an ingenious substitute.

They showed their 43 participants statements, some of which were relatively inconsequential opinions ("You are a cat person") and others of which touched on fundamental values ("You believe in God," "You are willing to kill an innocent human being"). The volunteers had to endorse each phrase or its opposite. Then, having committed to their phrases, they each were given the chance to sell out: For each sentence they had picked, they were offered a chance to take money to adopt its opposite. (So, for example, if you had selected "I do not believe in God," you would have had the chance to bid any amount between $1 and $100 to adopt the phrase "I believe in God.") Importantly, though, you could refuse to even consider such a thing, and "opt out" of bidding for that phrase. The actual payouts weren't certain (the system was set up so that a $1 bid meant you'd take any amount of money and were certain to get something; a $100 bid meant there was only a 1 percent chance your offer would be "accepted"). But real money did change hands. And to bring home the consequences of their choices, each participant received a printout of the statements s/he'd accepted, and had to sign it.

Finally, 32 of the volunteers went through this process while in a functional MRI scanner. This was, in fact, the point. The researchers had hypothesized that the most active regions of the brain during utilitarian horse-trading would be different from those active when people refused to trade. And this is what they report.

When people in the scanner were declining to take any amount of money to change their statements, a brain region called the left temporoparietal junction was more active. The temporoparietal junction has been associated with self-monitoring and with judgments of others' actions. While the researchers focussed on this region, they also looked around to see what else had been more active than usual when people were refusing to haggle. Those regions included the amygdala (which activates strongly when people are startled, alarmed or aroused) and a part of the frontal cortex associated with the learning and recall of explicit rules (like "thou shalt not kill").

Because these regions are quite different from those involved in cost-benefit calculations, the authors argue that they've shown that sacred values aren't simply a special form of "utility," but an entirely different kind of mental work.

The implication here is not that we should give up all hope of settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Iran nuclear standoff (which, Atran and colleagues have found, is increasingly seen as a "sacred values" conflict by some Iranians). But it does suggest that in those conflicts the West might do better to think less in terms of material payoffs and more in terms of concessions that honor the other side's sense of that they are not, and ever could be, that kind of woman.

Berns, G., Bell, E., Capra, C., Prietula, M., Moore, S., Anderson, B., Ginges, J., & Atran, S. (2012). The price of your soul: neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367 (1589), 754-762 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0262

Atran, S., Axelrod, R., & Davis, R. (2007). SOCIAL SCIENCE: Sacred Barriers to Conflict Resolution Science, 317 (5841), 1039-1040 DOI: 10.1126/science.1144241

Illustration: Judas Iscariot's payday, detail from the fresco by Giotto.

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