Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Working memory and morality

Sorry I've been away for so long! Lots of things going on, but I figured I'd get in a post today since it's been some two weeks.

I want to share the results of a study that hopefully connects another puzzle piece: People with higher working memory make more balanced moral decisions.

Working memory is the kind of memory you use when solving a math problem in your head: it's like a blackboard, where you temporarily keep facts and figures that you'll need to reason through or solve immediate problems. It's also strongly correlated with well-accepted measures of fluid intelligence -- the ability to learn new things. So why should that relate to making moral decisions?

Well, as the authors point out:

Previous studies have suggested that moral dilemmas can evoke strong emotions in people and tend to override thoughtful deliberation and reasoning.

However, a new neuroimaging research has shown that sometimes people are capable of voluntarily suppressing these emotional reactions, allowing for decisions based on reasoning and careful deliberation of the consequences of one’s actions.

This latter skill (voluntary control of emotion) is precisely the kind of training that one develops in certain kinds of meditation -- some of which have also been implicated in improving working memory itself. We'll delve into that another time, but it's an interesting point to ponder for those who may not have made the connection before.

In their conclusions, the authors note:

“This suggests that emotional reactions to moral issues can drive our judgments and motivate action but can also blind us to the consequences of our decisions in some cases.”

This sounds like an extremely relevant piece in the Sotomayor controversy: I would bet that the definition the Republican party uses when questioning the utility of "empathy" on the judicial bench reflects the supposition that empathy must involve emotional expressions which can lead to ill-founded biases. When properly executed, however, the effects should be something more akin to those described in the article:

Researchers found that in such emotion laden scenarios, people with high working memory capacity were not only more consistent in their judgments but their answers indicated that they were considering the consequences of their choices in a way that the other participants were not.

Leaving aside the definition of empathy, the above sounds like a skill we can all agree is valuable.

As an added bonus in this post, I'd like to make a quick offshoot to cognitive psychology: how can one train working memory, seeing as it's at the core of both intelligence and empathy?

Well, there was a big brouhaha last year about a task called the "dual n-back" task. The science is solid (there have even been good neuroscience followups on its effects), and the best implementation I've found so far is here:

It's hard, but the evidence suggests it's well worth the effort. Both for your raw intelligence and for the well-being of those around you :)


  1. The more I read, the more I hear about working memory. This is the same as the "7 +/- 2", yes? I find this at work too, I feel like my working memory fills up and I'd be a lot better off if I could stick a few more things in there.

    But if I'm going to be playing dual n-back for 25 minutes a day, how does that fit in with my life? How do I know this isn't just another fad? I've recently picked up meditating again, because, although it's hard to pull out a half hour to work on something, I'm convinced it's a really big deal that will really help my life. But how do I know that dual n-backing will help my life so much?

  2. This is fascinating stuff. It certainly agrees with my intuition that morality and emotions are highly complex and filled with nuance, thus requiring one to hold a lot in memory at one time.

    I'm going to start using this tool and am curious if there's a free, scientifically-valid tool to can use to benchmark working memory? It would be fun to graph progress weekly.

  3. In response to Dan, I understand the skepticism, but wouldn't it be worth trying it just for a week or two? I tried it-- 2 weeks everyday and the 3rd week every other day and I definitely noticed a difference with little things. In improv comedy for example, I found myself far superior then the rest for games that required split second decision making. On the surface, that might not seem valuable, but just the fact that my reasoning ability changed after only 3 weeks is pretty darn impressive.

  4. Great to hear feedback!

    Dan: the best I can do is point to two major articles in the past year, one psychological (the original Jaeggi et al. article) and one neuroscientific (on the areas strengthened by dual n-back practice), both published in top journals (Nature and Science, IIRC). I'm eager to see more research, too, but so far it checks out.

    Chris: one hard thing about measuring short-term working memory capacity is what's known as "far transfer": although many tasks exist to improve abilities of particular tasks, one always needs an independent yardstick to gauge improvement. The original study uses a test similar to the Raven's Progressive Matrices Test, commonly used to assess general intelligence. Dual n-back is the first task to demonstrate such far transfer. There are some tests online similar to RPMT that you might try, although doing one weekly would fall victim to near transfer (that is, getting better at IQ tests rather than becoming generally smarter).

    Bianca: glad to hear it's working out for you! Now if only I were disciplined enough to take my own advice... :)