New York University Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Navigation Skip to Sub Navigation

New Finding Offers Neurological Support for Adam Smith’s ‘Theories of Morality’

September 28, 2012

The part of the brain we use when engaging in egalitarian behavior may also be linked to a larger sense of morality, researchers have found. Their conclusions, which offer scientific support for Adam Smith’s theories of morality, are based on experimental research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study was conducted by researchers from NYU’s Wilf Family Department of Politics; the University of Toronto; the University of California, San Diego; the University of California, Davis; and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Previous scholarship has established that two areas of the brain are active when we behave in an egalitarian manner—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the insular cortex, which are two neurological regions previously shown to be related to social preferences such as altruism, reciprocity, fairness, and aversion to inequality. Less clear, however, is how these parts of the brain may also be connected to egalitarian behavior in a group setting.

To explore this, the researchers conducted an experiment in which individuals played a game to gauge brain activity in decision-making. To get at a more detailed understanding of neurological activity during this game, they also examined whether activations were associated with two specific measures of egalitarian preferences elicited outside of an fMRI.

The researchers found that these two measures of egalitarian preferences were significantly associated with activations in the insular cortex, but not with the vmPFC. This result is a potentially profound one as the insular cortex is also the part of the brain that processes the relationship of the individual with respect to his or her environment. In other words, egalitarian behavior may not exist in isolation, neurologically speaking, but, rather, be part of a larger process that stems from altruism and a sense of the larger social good.

Adam Smith expressed this perspective in his 18th-century essay, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

“Adam Smith contended that moral sentiments like egalitarianism derived from a ‘fellow-feeling’ that would increase with our level of sympathy for others, predicting not merely aversion to inequity, but also our propensity to engage in egalitarian behaviors,” the researchers write. “The evidence here supports such an interpretation.”

Type: Article

Press Contact: James Devitt | (212) 998-6808

New Finding Offers Neurological Support for Adam Smith’s ‘Theories of Morality’

Search News



NYU In the News

Entrepreneurship Lab Opens at NYU

Crain’s New York Business covered the opening of the Mark and Debra Leslie Entrepreneurial eLab, which will be the headquarters for NYU’s Entrepreneurial Institute and all of the University’s programs aimed at promoting innovation and startups.

A Globalizer for N.Y.U. in Abu Dhabi

The New York Times profiled Bill Bragin who will become the first executive artistic director of NYU Abu Dhabi’s new performing arts center.

Think Tank to Ponder a Future for Ballet

The New York Times profiled Jennifer Homans, the director of NYU’s new Center for Ballet and the Arts.

The Brilliant Ten: Jonathan Viventi Builds Devices That Decode Thoughts

Popular Science named Assistant Bioengineering Professor Jonathan Viventi as one of its “brilliant ten” for his research into brain implants that could one day halt epileptic episodes:

Living and Leaving the Dream: Adrian Cardenas’ Journey from the Major Leagues to College

The New York Times ran a feature on Adrian Cardenas, a former major league baseball player who is now studying philosophy and creating writing at NYU.

NYU Footer