A new study, led by Dr Pascal Molenberghs of the School of Psychological Sciences at Monash University, has used brain scanning to investigate how people justify killing in simulated scenarios.
Participants were asked to imagine shooting innocent civilians and enemy soldiers within a video game, to test how they would react to the imagined act of killing in these different situations. The study found that when participants imagined shooting civilians, in other words, when their violence was unjustifiable, there was greater brain activity in the area known as the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is an area associated with moral decision making. The more guilt associated with the imagined killing, the higher the activity in the area. The OFC did not activate at all when killing enemy soldiers, suggesting that if participants felt the violence justified, there was no guilt associated with the act of killing.
“The findings show that when a person is responsible for what they see as justified or unjustified violence, they will have different feelings of guilt associated with that – for the first time we can see how this guilt relates to specific brain activation,” Dr Molenberghs said.
Research will continue into how people can become desensitised to violence and whether being part of a group as either a perpetrator or a victim can influence the processes of the brain.