Pictures have power in moral judgment

The Parable of the Good Samaritan Fresco
by Ben Long

Making moral decisions can be difficult. Life presents us with some circumstances in which decisions are relatively easy — a certain action is either good or bad. But life also presents us with circumstances in which it is difficult to determine right from wrong.

A National Public Radio story sheds some light on the decision-making process that occurs in our heads — ”Why Mental Pictures Can Sway Your Moral Judgment.”

The story cites some well-known ethical conundrums. Research has shown that in determining the rightness or wrongness of an action people sometimes use utilitarian, cost-benefit calculations and at other times they make emotional decisions. So, why?

Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene says we have two different moral circuits in our brain. “When you listen to a dilemma, the two circuits literally have a fight inside your brain. Part of your brain says, slow down, think rationally — make a cost-benefit analysis. Another says, no, don’t think about it. This is just wrong!” These responses compete with one another.

Greene and a colleague, Elinor Amit, have determined that emotional responses “don’t just pop out of nowhere,” Greene said. “They have to be triggered by something. And one possibility is that you hear the words describing some event, you picture that event in your mind, and then you respond emotionally to that picture.”

NPR’s story says:

“That’s the key: Some dilemmas produce vivid images in our heads. And we’re wired to respond emotionally to pictures. Take away the pictures — the brain goes into rational, calculation mode.

“Amit says people don’t realize how images tip the brain one way or another. And that can create biases we aren’t even aware of. …

“Amit’s point is not that one mode is better than the other. It’s something much more disturbing. As you listen to the news everyday, hidden circuits in your brain are literally changing the ground rules by which you judge events.

“You think you’re making consistent moral choices when, really, the movies playing in your head might be making your choices for you.”

The Parable of the Good Samaritan Fresco
by Ben Long

It’s good to know about the power of images. It seems Jesus understood this power because his parables enabled people to visualize in their minds the consequences of certain actions and ideas. Two thousand years later, we can still visualize a Samaritan man stopping to assist a wounded traveler. And we can hope that such visualization can motivate us to be more like the Samaritan and less like the priest who passed by on the other side of the road.

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