Justice and the brain


The human brain is a big believer in equality — and a team of scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, has become the first to gather the images to prove it.

Specifically, the team found that the reward centers in the human brain respond more strongly when a poor person receives a financial reward than when a rich person does. The surprising thing? This activity pattern holds true even if the brain being looked at is in the rich person’s head, rather than the poor person’s.
– from Science Daily

From an evolutionary perspective, it is not surprising that we may be predisposed for justice. We are social animals, and in many cases, justice benefits the group as a whole.

But that is not the whole story. We are most likely evolutionary predisposed for both justice and injustice, since either one can be of benefit in different situations. Most of the time, in a stable group, justice will benefit everyone. And yet, sometimes, perhaps in critical situations, unstable groups, or in infrequent interactions with strangers, injustice may be to our advantage.

We are evolutionary and biologically predisposed for both, and which strategy is activated depends on our long-term and short-term circumstances. If we live in a stable group, we may tend to develop a good sense of justice. If we live in unstable circumstances, our predisposition to injustice may take over.

As all experience, both will have biological correlates and their own reward loops. And as all strategies, tendencies, and human experience in general, our evolved biology makes it possible.

The study above was done on US and Irish students, who lived in and had grown up in stable and relatively affluent societies. Would the results be different if they looked at individuals from unstable and harsher backgrounds, for instance inner city kids or people in a war zone? When you are used to having to fend for yourself, and not have much or any social support, does the reward center light up the same way in the same situations? Perhaps, or perhaps not.

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