Neuroimaging Study of Korean vs U.S. Moral Thinking

Stanford scholar shows Koreans and Americans tackle moral dilemmas using different brain regions … offers first look at neural differences between cultural groups solving tricky moral problems.

Someone pointed me to the story, published here (thank you, Annette Bryson!). The study, which is hyperlinked in the story, is available here for free download (last I checked). I have no real comment on it yet, but thought some blog readers who are interested in empirical studies about moral thinking in Confucian societies might find it interesting, assuming, as I do, that Korea has a society that still remains heavily influenced by its history of Confucianism.

9 replies on “Neuroimaging Study of Korean vs U.S. Moral Thinking”

    • As someone with a technical background and familiar with such studies, I would say although it’s not satisfactory, it is interesting. I’d of course have to see the study closer.

  1. I read a news article about from: “”

    In the article, the authors also cautions the readers that the study needs expansion of the number of participants and the result refelcts only the “average characteristics of the different groups.”

    They say it is meaningful as one among the first to compare neural activity of moral reasoning between different cultural groups.

    The author proposes the result could reflect 1) exposure to socio-personal conflict and 2) previous moral education courses.

    And we also have to keep in mind that the author taught a moral education in Korea, and “he hepoes to improve the effectiveness of moral education programs.”

    I am looking forward to read from someone who read the whole article.

  2. This seems in line with a whole body of behavioral literature. Was Hazel Markus involved? The cross-cultural psychology enterprise comes out of Richard Nisbett’s work at U.M. See his Geography of Thought. The current centers for it (that I know of) are Stanford (Markus) and U.M. (Kitayama). The behavioral differences across cultures are well-attested, so it would be interesting, but not all that surprising, if distinct brain areas were implicated.

  3. I just took a look at this study (and I met Annette today–go figure!). The authors don’t mention that Markus was involved, but they do draw heavily on the Nisbett tradition.

    Here’s the gist of it: “Korean participants are predicted to show more neural activity in brain regions associated with intuition and approximation (e.g., putamen, insula, caudate, postcentral sulcus, parietal lobule); on the other hand, Americans are predicted to show a significant activity in regions associated with formal reasoning, conflict and novelty monitoring (e.g., ACC, frontopolar prefrontal cortex (FPC).” These predictions are based on the following construal of the relevant literature:

    First, this study considers why Korean participants would show a more active response in regions associated with intuitive processes, while American counterparts are expected to show an increased activity in regions correlated with more slow reasoning processes when they are solving moral dilemmas. Norenzayan, Smith, Kim and Nisbett compared decision making processes between Korean and American participants [20]. In addition, Nisbett, Peng, Choi and Norenzayan suggested that people living in East Asian countries usually “seek intuitive instantaneous understanding through direct perception” toward external situations [21]. Because people living in East Asian societies tend to perceive and solve problems holistically, they become less analytic and think more “big-picture” than Europeans or Americans [21]…

    Second, American participants would more utilize the conflict monitoring and novelty detecting monitoring mechanisms than Korean participants. The results of previous cultural psychological study showed that people living in collectivistic societies prefer to accommodate conflicting situations and to follow shared values [23,24], or even to avoid possible social conflicts [25] to maintain the harmony in their community, while people who came from individualistic societies tend to directly confront the conflicting situations. Moreover, because Korean society is not a highly multicultural society, Koreans would not frequently experience severe value conflicts between difference socio-cultural values or norms in their everyday life, while Americans would be exposed to such conflicts more frequently around them [26].

    Here is one of the basic conclusions: “Thus, Korean participants apparently utilized socio-moral intuitive processes more strongly, and they more relied on an emotional intuitive circuit, which is associated with hate and disgust emotions when they were solving complicated and emotionally negative moral dilemmas, as suggested by the increased activity in the putamen.”

    Regarding Howard’s skepticism about the sample size, this is well-founded–in a way. The study is not only about neuroimaging but also about attitudes and behavior. For the latter two, it’s my understanding that sixteen subjects is way too small to be able to draw statistically significant conclusions (it’s interesting that the journal referees let that through). On the neuroimaging side, however, small sample sizes are the rule. I suppose this is because of the time and expense involved in working with fMRI machines. I’ve never given it much thought, but now I wonder how robust such results are. I don’t know why, but intuitively, neuroimaging results seem more solid to me than behavioral and self-report results. On the other hand, given the enormous amount of mathematical filtering that goes on just to get neuroimagine results (they’re not simply taking pictures), there may be room for skepticism. Further, at least some of the time, matching fMRI results with well-defined neural networks and then matching those networks to behavior can risk creating a number of just-so stories–which have to be posited with caution and with an eye to prior literature.

    I’m not entirely ready to drink the Kool-Aid on the kind of cross-cultural essentialism that is occurring in the behavior studies (I’d be interested in Paul’s take), but they are often compelling. Notice, here, that the American moral decision-making is slow and deliberate, while that of the Koreans is fast and intuitive. This is in line with the philosophical story often told about Confucian moral training as a skill vs. Aristotelean deliberative reasoning in moral situations (though Aristotle also talks about the importance of habituation and the Confucians talk about reflection). The study authors do mention that the Korean participants have undergone years and years of moral training in their educational system that could prepare (prime?) them for these moral dilemmas. I’d like to know more about that education if anyone has information. I wonder how close the match would be, as these dilemmas seem framed from the perspective of Western deliberative ethics.

    Here is a link to a pre-print version of the article:

    • Thanks for these excerpts and interesting discussion, Brian. In his book “Cognitive Variations,” G.E.R. Lloyd has a critique of Nisbett’s generalizations about “East Asians” and “Westerners” on which the authors of this study seem to be relying. In short, he argues that such studies show differences between the various groups within the broader categories rather than between them. He has particularly critical things to say about Nisbett’s use of Greek philosophy to buttress his claims of cultural difference. I don’t have much of my own to add, but just suggest them as reading for anyone who is considering “drinking the kool-aid.”

  4. Thanks, Tim. I’m familiar with Lloyd’s work with Sivin, but that book escaped my notice. I’ll check it out.

  5. I don’t know how visible posts on old threads are, but here is an interesting take on this topic (from a talk at the University of Michigan (that I, unfortunately, missed)):

    Abstract: Many studies in cross-cultural psychology seem to implicitly assumed that East Asia is a single culture. However, my data shows differences within China almost as large as differences between East and West. I offer the theory that a history of rice farming has made southern Chinese culture more interdependent and focused on tight, reciprocal relationships. I gave psychological measures to 1,074 Han Chinese participants in seven sites and found that people from rice-growing southern China have more interdependent self-concepts and a more holistic cultural thought style than Han Chinese from the wheat-growing north. Differences were just as large between neighboring counties along the Yangtze River, which divides the rice and wheat regions. The results are in stark contrast to the popular modernization theory of culture, which would predict individualism in the most developed areas. In sum, Han China seems to have two distinct northern and southern psychological cultures that fall along the borders of traditional rice and wheat agriculture.

    Abstracts & Bios:
    Thomas Talhelm:
    Thomas Talhelm is a 2012-2013 Fulbright scholar to China and a PhD Candidate in social psychology at the University of Virginia. He graduated from Michigan in 2007. He researches cross-cultural differences and north-south cultural differences in China. He has lived in China (both north and south) for four years doing research, as a Princeton in Asia fellow, and as a freelance journalist.

    • Fascinating! Is it reasonable to guess that the difference is because rice farming demands more work and attention, so people have to be more tightly bound?

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