News Release: Research , School of Medicine

Oct. 28,  2009

Neuroscientists Study Influence of Moral Outrage in Creation of Political Conflict

News Article ImageGregory Berns, MD, PhD

In a study funded by U.S. Air Force and Navy, Emory University researchers will use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess activity in the brain when sacred values are perceived as being attacked or diminished.

Sacred values are defined as beliefs about religion, government policy, family values and values in general that people care strongly about.

"Given the importance of sacred values and the potential for triggering violent conflict, it is important to understand how sacred values become intertwined in decision making," says Gregory Berns, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Neuropolicy, professor of economics, and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, at Emory. Berns is lead investigator for the study.

"Outrage is a distinct emotional state, but almost nothing is known about its physiological affect on functional systems of the brain," says Berns.

For the initial study, researchers will recruit 30 people between the ages of 18-59 who have strongly held beliefs and values. Each participant will be asked to fill out questionnaires related to sacred values, followed by an MRI of the brain. During the MRI, the volunteers will be shown moral statements while the brain's response to those statements is measured.

Berns believes that government policy makers, military personnel and world leaders who are equipped with an understanding of how the brain reacts to irreverence of sacred values can use this knowledge in their negotiations, with the intent of finding peaceful solutions.

"The Department of Defense is aware that it does no good to bomb a building if it creates more terrorists," explains Berns, "so it is keenly interested in understanding what drives an emotional reaction that is so strong it has the potential to obliterate rational thinking. The outcome of this study could be a first step in bringing people together who have opposing value systems."

The study is funded by a grant from the National Science foundation and the Department of Defense. Emory researchers include Monica Capra, PhD, Economics Department, and Michael Prietula, PhD, Goizueta Business School.

Anyone interested in participating in the study should contact Brittany Anderson at 404-727-3087.


The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service.

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