Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Cognitive Bias

People generally believe that they are mostly rational in their thinking, decisions, and actions. But even the smartest and best educated people often commit cognitive errors as they make financial, medical, personal and ethical decisions. These errors in thinking, also called cognitive bias, affect all people in virtually every situation.

For example, physicians must be aware of the error of overconfidence bias as they make diagnoses which could cause them to insufficiently value other doctors’ opinions. Likewise, physicians (and everyone else) must watch out for confirmation bias, which is the tendency people have to process new information in a way that is heavily influenced by their existing beliefs.

The anchoring effect is another bias in thinking whereby people’s initial focus on a particular fact or number means that they fail to properly adjust their judgments as new and different information arises. There is also the cognitive error of overgeneralization, which is the tendency to jump to a broad conclusion based on a single piece of evidence.

People are influenced in differing degrees by these (and many other) cognitive biases. Studies show that some errors in thinking can be moderated with education. For example, physicians can learn to recognize cognitive biases and so reduce their diagnostic mistakes.

But even with effort, none of us will escape cognitive errors altogether. Knowing your brain is biased is critical to making it work better for you, and everyone around you.

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Neuroethics refers to the research on ethics done within the field of neuroscience. Neuroethics can also refer to the ethical issues that may arise in the research and study of neuroscience. Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system and the brain.

The field of neuroethics is relatively new, and its findings are far from settled. It examines the brain in relationship to questions like “Is there free will?” and “Is the human moral sense innate, or in other words, ‘hardwired’ in the brain?”

Research in neuroscience shows that the way the brain is wired has much to do with how and why people make moral decisions. In fact, neuroscience shows that a network of various regions of the brain is consistently involved in moral decision-making.

So, while ethics and morality were once exclusively within the province of philosophers and theologians, future research in neuroscience may contribute greatly to the resolution of key questions in these areas.

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Moral Psychology

Moral psychology is the study of moral identity development, or how people integrate moral ideals with the development of their own character.

Moral psychology differs from moral philosophy in that it studies how we make decisions, rather than exploring what moral decisions we should make. It encompasses the study of moral judgment, moral reasoning, moral character, and many related subjects at the intersection of philosophy and psychology.

Moral psychologists are interested in answering a wide range of questions such as, “What types of thinking give rise to moral judgment, and how did they evolve?” “What levels of moral development are found in children and animals?” and “What role do intuitions play in moral judgment and decision-making?”

For centuries, philosophers have been contemplating fundamental issues such as “What does it mean to be a ‘good’ person?” without resolving them. So, by adding the tools of psychology to those of philosophy, we may be able to shine more light on such difficult questions.

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Moral Cognition

Moral cognition is the study of the brain’s role in moral judgment and decision-making. As a social science, it involves understanding the rationalizations and biases that affect moral decision-making. Moral cognition also involves the scientific study of the brain that is evolving along with technology.

Researchers who study moral cognition attempt to provide social and biological explanations for how our brains process information and make moral or immoral choices. Some scientist examine genetic and molecular influences, while others use neuroimaging to map the areas of the brain that direct people’s choices.

Moral thinking appears to be a complicated process. There is no single seat of moral activity in the brain. However, a network of various regions of the brain does consistently appear to be involved in moral decision-making.

So, the study of moral cognition does not aim to tell people what choices they should make. Rather, it attempts to explain how and why people make the moral choices that they do.

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