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30600New Scientist: [U]sing a tool called the ultimatum game, researchers have identified the part of the brain responsible for punishing unfairness.

Previous brain imaging studies have revealed that part of the frontal lobes known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC, becomes active when people face an unfair offer and have to decide what to do. Researchers had suggested this was because the region somehow suppresses our judgement of fairness.

But now, Ernst Fehr, an economist at the University of Zurich, and colleagues have come to the opposite conclusion – that the region suppresses our natural tendency to act in our own self interest. They used a burst of magnetic pulses called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – produced by coils held over the scalp – to temporarily shut off activity in the DLPFC. Now, when faced with the opportunity to spitefully reject a cheeky low cash offer, subjects were actually more likely to take the money. The researchers found that the DLPFC region's activity on the right side of the brain, but not the left, is vital for people to be able to dish out such punishment. "The DLPFC is really causal in this decision. Its activity is crucial for overriding self interest," says Fehr. When the region is not working, people still know the offer is unfair, he says, but they do not act to punish the unfairness.

Moral centre?

"Self interest is one important motive in every human," says Fehr, "but there are also fairness concerns in most people." "In other words, this is the part of the brain dealing with morality," says Herb Gintis, an economist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, US. "[It] is involved in comparing the costs and benefits of the material in terms of its fairness. It represses the basic instincts." Psychologist Laurie Santos, at Yale University in Connecticut, US, comments: "This form of spite is a bit of an evolutionary puzzle. There are few examples in the animal kingdom." The new finding is really exciting, Santos says, as the DLPFC brain area is expanded only in humans, and it could explain why this type of behaviour exists only in humans.

Fehr says the research has interesting implications for how we treat young offenders. "This region of the brain matures last, so if it is truly overriding our own self interest then adolescents are less endowed to comply with social norms than adults," he suggests. The criminal justice system takes into account differences for under-16s or under-18s, but this area fully matures around the age of 20 or 22, he says. [Source]
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