Rock, Paper, Scissors, We Know. But Magnets over Morality? Wow.

Superman was powerless against Kryptonite, but he was a fictional comic book hero. Scientists believe morality can be influenced by magnets in real life. Weird, right?


For most of us, magnets are those ordinary objects that affix life’s memorabilia to the refrigerator. But according to a study by MIT, Harvard and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center scientists reported online at MSNBC, magnets can move our moral compass. Quite simply, the researchers found they could manipulate moral judgments using powerful magnetic fields on the brain.

“It’s one thing to ‘know’ that we’ll find morality in the brain,” said Liane Young an MIT researcher and co-author of the study. “It’s another to ‘knock out’ that brain area and change people’s moral judgments.”

For the purposes of the study, the scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or a specialized MRI scan, to locate an area of the brain behind and above the ear known as the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ) where moral judgments reside. The researchers asked 20 study subjects to read several dozen different stories about people who had good or bad intentions, which had a variety of results. While the stories were being read by the volunteers, scientists used a magnetic field to confuse the neurons with electrical impulses in the RTPJ part of the brain. The magnet muddled the moral thinking, making it difficult to interpret intent and focusing the subjects’ attention on outcome, instead.

Young says that the influence was small, but still significant. “It’s still striking to see such a change in such high level behavior as moral decision-making,” she said. So, it seems that rocks beats scissors, paper beats rock and magnets knock out morality.

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