CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Monday, September 19, 2016

Ginther et al. on Behavioral and Brain Mechanisms of Setting Punishment

Matthew R. Ginther, Richard J. Bonnie, Morris B. Hoffman, Francis X. Shen, Kenneth W. Simons, Owen D. Jones and Rene Marois (Vanderbilt University - Law School, University of Virginia - School of Law, Second Judicial District Court Judge, State of Colorado, University of Minnesota Law School, University of California, Irvine School of Law, Vanderbilt University - Law School & Dept. of Biological Sciences and Vanderbilt University - Department of Psychology Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience) have posted Parsing the Behavioral and Brain Mechanisms of Third-Party Punishment (Journal of Neuroscience. Vol. 36, 9420-9434) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The evolved capacity for third-party punishment is considered crucial to the emergence and maintenance of elaborate human social organization and is central to the modern provision of fairness and justice within society. Although it is well established that the mental state of the offender and the severity of the harm he caused are the two primary predictors of punishment decisions, the precise cognitive and brain mechanisms by which these distinct components are evaluated and integrated into a punishment decision are poorly understood.

Using a brain-scanning technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we implemented a novel experimental design to functionally dissociate the mechanisms underlying evaluation, integration, and decision. This work revealed that multiple parts of the brain – some analytic, some subconscious or emotional – work in a systematic pattern to decide blameworthiness, assess harms, integrate those two decisions, and then ultimately select how a person should be punished.

Specifically, harm and mental state evaluations are conducted in two different brain networks and then combined in the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate areas of the brain, while the amygdala acts as a pivotal hub of the interaction between harm and mental state. This integrated information is then used by the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex when the brain is making a decision on punishment amount.

These findings provide a blueprint of the brain mechanisms by which neutral third parties make punishment decisions.

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