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 :)