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Brain Scans Reveal How People Justify Killing

A new study using brain scans reveals how people can become killers in certain situations, showing how brain activity varies according to whether killing is seen as justified.

For the study, Dr. Pascal Molenberghs of Monash University in Australia recruited participants to play video games in which they imagined themselves shooting innocent civilians — unjustified violence — or enemy soldiers —  justified violence. Their brain activity was recorded via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they played.

According to Molenberghs, the results provide insight into how people in certain situations, such as war, are able to commit extreme violence against others.

“When participants imagined themselves shooting civilians compared to soldiers, greater activation was found in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), an important brain area involved in making moral decisions,” he said.

“The more guilt participants felt about shooting civilians, the greater the response in the lateral OFC. When shooting enemy soldiers, no activation was seen in lateral OFC.”

The results show that the neural mechanisms that are typically implicated with harming others become less active when the violence against a particular group is seen as justified.

“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,” he said.

Molenberghs is director of the Monash Social Neuroscience Lab, which studies morality, empathy and group membership to get a better understanding of how social problems such as racism and in-group bias develop. He said he hopes to further investigate how people become desensitized to violence and how personality and the group membership of both perpetrators and victims influences these processes.

The study was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Source: Monash University

Brain Scans Reveal How People Justify Killing

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Brain Scans Reveal How People Justify Killing. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 12 Apr 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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