TEDxZurich – Molly Crockett – Drugs and morals

TEDxZurich – Molly Crockett – Drugs and morals

Translator: Mohand Habchi
Reviewer: Brenda Oreggioni Thank you so much. I am going to start with a very deep
philosophical question. How do you feel about blue cheese? You know stilton, roquefort, gorgonzola. Most people have pretty strong opinions, where one or the other,
they love it or hate it, I’d like you to imagine someone
who does not share your opinion on blue cheese, and consider whether you’d be happy
to have this person, as a neighbor, a close friend, or a romantic partner? And keeps these feelings in mind. Another controversial topic is abortion. Should it be legal or illegal? Think about your own opinion and now consider
whether you’d be happy to have someone who doesn’t share
your opinion on abortion, as a neighbor, a close friend, or a romantic partner? Not quite the same
as feelings on Stilton, right? These questions I’ve asked you
are adapted from research by Linda Skitka at the University of Illinois. Her research has shown
that there’s something special about moral values,
like opposition to abortion, as opposed to non-moral values,
like your feelings about blue cheese. And as you might expect, disagreement on moral issues is much more damaging
to social relationships than disagreement on non-moral issues. Why is it that a blue cheese lover is perfectly happy to be friend, marry,
have kids with a blue cheese hater, but there exist anti-abortion extremists, who think it’s justifiable
to kill another person in a Church, just because he disagrees with them. We’ve got to figure this out because we now live in a world
where extremists guided by their moral convictions can do a lot of damages. We can start by asking ourselves, “How it is that we know
something is right or wrong?” And it turns out actually for a lot people this question
doesn’t even really make any sense, because people often experience
moral believes as if they’re objective facts
about the world. So for someone oppose
to the death penalty for example, the fact that it’s wrong
seems as obvious as the statement 1+1=2. And we have some more evidence for this from research by Geoffrey Goodwin
at the University of Pennsylvania. He runs some experiments
were he presented his volunteers with a series of statements
in the following categories: Facts, like Boston is further north
than Los Angeles, Ethics, like opening gunfire
on a crowded city street is wrong. Social norms, like wearing pajamas
to a TED talk is wrong. Tastes, like classical music
is better than rock music. For each statement, subject had to answer yes or no
to the following questions. Does the statement have a correct answer? And here’s what they found. Not surprisingly,
people felt most strongly that facts had correct answers
while tastes did not. But notice that the statement of ethics
looked more like facts than like tastes. And we see this overlap
between facts and values in the brain as well. Sam Harris and colleagues
scanned people’s brains as they evaluated the truthfulness
of factual statements, ethical statements, and religious statements. They found that a region of the brain
called the medial prefrontal cortex, was more active when people believed the statement
to be true than to be false. But importantly activity in this region
did not differentiate between the different categories
of moral beliefs of different statements. So mathematical beliefs, like 2+2=4, show the similar pattern of activity
to ethical beliefs. Like, “It’s wrong to take pleasure
at another’s suffering.” Now the upshot of all this, is we think that there is a right answer
to moral questions. And here’s the rub. If you and I disagree,
and we both can be right, well, who’s right? And of course the answer is obvious,
it’s me who’s right. Obviously my facts trump your facts. And therefore
you must be stupid or unreasonable. And of course this kind of language
is all too common in politics these days. (Laughter) But there’s also a dangerous difference between disagreeing on facts
and disagreeing on moral issues. See if you think that 1+1=3, I might think you’re unreasonable
or a little strange. But if you and I
disagree on a moral issue, not only do I think
that you’re unreasonable, but also a bad person. Maybe even less than human. Moral values are like facts on steroids. They’ve got really strong emotion
attach to them, and these emotions
often come with a motivation to harm or eliminate the other side. And this is of course is a huge problem. Because while we readily accept that tastes and opinions can change, facts are facts. I have my facts,
you have your facts, and we’re both so committed
to those realities that it’s senseless to expect
that either of us will ever change. Imagine trying to convince someone
who is red-green color blind, that these two circles
are different colors. There is nothing
you can say it to this person to make him see the world
the way you see it. And the same unfortunately
appears to be true with differences in moral viewpoints. Values seem like facts, and facts by definition
are fixed properties of reality. So where do we go from here? I grew up in the States, but I’ve been in Europe
for about five years now, and I watched as the political situation has become increasingly insane, increasingly extreme, and I really wanted to understand how it is that we get so attached
to our moral values. Myself included. And I’m a neuroscientist, so naturally I started poking around
in people’s brains. And I found out that our moral values are lot less stable than we think. What if I told you that a pill
could change your judgment of what’s right and what’s wrong. Or what if I told you
that your sense of justice could depend on what you had
for breakfast this morning. You’re probably thinking by now
that this sounds like science-fiction. Neurons in the brain use chemicals
called neurotransmitters to talk to each other. Here we have two neurons, the gap between them
is called the synapse. To transmit a message across the synapse, this one neuron must release
neurotransmitters into the synapse where they bind to receptors
on the next neuron and propagate the message. The brain produces
and releases these chemicals in response to various situations. My colleagues and I wanted to know whether manipulating
people’s brain chemistry could change the way they respond
to moral situations. So in one study,
we presented our volunteers with eight moral dilemmas,
like the following. There’s a trolley and it’s headed
out of control down some tracks towards five workers who will die
if you do nothing. However you can stop the trolley by pushing a man
carrying a heavy briefcase in front of the trolley onto the tracks,
and he will die but the five other will be saved. The question is? Is it morally acceptable to harm
this one person to save the others. And of course there’s no objectively
correct answer to this question. And in fact, there are two
schools of moral thought that take opposing views. So the utilitarian school,
rooted in the works of Jeremy Bentham, judges’ actions
based on the outcome they produce. So morally appropriate actions are those that result
in the greatest good for the greatest numbers. On the other hand,
the deontological school, grounded in the works of Immanuel Kant, judges the actions themselves. So there are right actions
and wrong actions and the outcomes are irrelevant. In the dilemma I just described to you, utilitarians would say it’s appropriate
to push the man in front of the trolley, because more lives
will be saved in the end, whereas deontologists would say
it’s inappropriate, because harming is fundamentally wrong. My colleagues and I asked 30 volunteers
to make judgments in a series of moral dilemmas
like the one I described to you. We wanted to see
what if we could change people’s judgments of right and wrong by manipulating a particular
brain chemical called serotonin. We used a drug called the Selective Serotonin
Reuptake Inhibitor, or SSRI. It’s similar to the antidepressant,
Prozac, and basically works by enhancing
the effect of serotonin in the brain. On one session our volunteers
made moral judgments while on the influence of SSRI. And on the other session
they made moral judgments while on a placebo pill. And here’s what we found. On the placebo session, our volunteers said
it was appropriate to harm one to save many others in about 40% of the cases
that we described to them. And when we gave them the SSRI, they were significantly
less likely to say it was acceptable to harm one
to save many. In other words,
the drug made them less utilitarian. Now take a second to think
about these results. The debate between
utilitarians and deontologists has been raging for hundreds of years. We gave people a single pill and without even knowing it, they gave different answers
to this question of whether or not it’s OK to harm one
to save many others. So could the difference
between people like Bentham and people like Kant, boil down to the serotonin levels
in their brains? And on a more serious note, what are the implications of this
for other kinds of ethical questions? So taking this idea further, my colleagues also looked
at whether serotonin levels influence the way that we respond
to being treated unfairly. We used a game from economics
called “The ultimatum game.” There are two players,
a proposer and a responder. The proposer suggests the way to split
a sum of money with the responder. The responder can either accept the offer in which case both players
are paid accordingly, or he can reject the offer in which case neither player
gets any money. Many studies have now shown responders will typically reject offers
they perceive to be unfair. Which makes sense. I think a lot of us
would rather have nothing than let someone who’s treated us unfairly
get the lion’s share. In our study, we wanted to see whether we could shift around
people’s responses to unfairness by changing their serotonin levels. We did this by changing people’s diet. So, the raw ingredient for serotonin is the amino acid tryptophan. And we all must constantly replenish
our supply of tryptophan by eating protein-rich foods. In the lab, we are able to manipulate
serotonin levels, by giving people a protein shake
that lacks tryptophan. And on the placebo control session we give people a shake
that looks and tastes the same except that it does contain
2.5 grams of added tryptophan. And we gave people these drinks and had them play the ultimatum game
in the role of responder, then we measured rejection rates
for unfair, medium and fair offers. On placebo, you can see people reject
a lot of the unfair offers, they hardly ever reject
the fair 50/50 splits, and here’s what happen
when we lower their serotonin levels: Rejection rates go up
for the unfair offers. Now take a second again
to just pause and think about this. The only difference
between these two treatments is 2.5 grams of tryptophan in the diet. That’s it. Our volunteers don’t feel
any difference in the two sessions, they don’t notice any changes
in their behavior. And yet the subtle difference was enough to change the way that they responded
to being treated unfairly. Now, it’s important to point out,
in this lab study we artificially manipulated
people’s serotonin levels, but out in the real world,
serotonin levels do fluctuate naturally. In response to things like changes
in diet and stress levels. What this means is our moral values could be shifting
a little bit all the time without us even knowing it. And we do have evidence
that this kind of thing is happening out in the real world. Shai Danziger and colleagues and I
looked at parole board rulings, judges’ rulings of whether
to grant parole to prisoners. Here, we have the proportion
of favorable rulings on the vertical axis, and on the bottom,
we have basically the time of day. Here on the vertical axis
are the judges meal breaks. It turns out
if you’re coming up for parole, you’re more likely to be granted parole if your hearing takes place
after the judge had a snack. I hope that this worries you a little bit. (Laughter) More seriously,
I hope that I have convinced you that our moral values are less stable
than they appear to be. And this is important, because it turns out that simply believing that moral values are changeable
as opposed to fixed can have dramatic effects
on our willingness to cooperate and compromise. The Israel-Palestine conflict, is one of the biggest
ideological clashes of our time. It’s resulted in thousands
of deaths on both sides, huge cost in quality of life. Eran Halperin, Carol Dweck and colleagues
recently reported that beliefs about whether groups
have a fixed versus changeable nature can influence Israelian and Palestinian
attitudes towards each other and their willingness
to compromise for peace. In their experiment, Israelis and Palestinians
were randomly assigned to read one of two articles. One article suggested
that aggressive groups have a fixed nature, and the other article suggested
they have a changeable nature. Those who read the article
about changeable groups were more likely to be willing
to meet with the other side and hear their point of view, and more willing to compromise
on issues like the status of Jerusalem and settlements in the West Bank.. What this means is… If we can wrap our heads around the idea
that moral values are not fixed but can change, we are more likely
to listen to each other. And here’s a crazy idea. If pills can shift our moral values, what if negotiators
popped a few moral enhancers before heading to the table? (Laughter) Such an intervention might make it
easier for opponents to see each other’s side. Now of course we have a long way to go
before we fully understand which brain chemicals influence
which kind of moral beliefs. But I do think it’s plausible
that one day we will have the expertise to identify different brain systems
that drive preferences for conflicting ethical principles. As long as we believe,
falsely, I might add, that our moral values are unshakeable, we will continue to invest our resources in fighting with each other rather than searching
for a middle way. Instead, can’t we cultivate a healthy sense of skepticism
for our own sense of right and wrong? Because once we accept
that our moral values can be altered by factors
beyond our awareness and control, maybe we’ll become
a little less attached to them. And as sooner that we can let go
of this attachment, the better. Because we’ve got some scary problems, threatening our collective survival. And we’re not solving them
because we’re sitting around bickering with each other, fighting with each other, drowning in this quick sand
of hate and fear. This hate and this fear are blinding us to our common humanity and the amazing things that we can achieve if we put our differences aside
and our heads and hearts together. People, it’s time to open our eyes, to open ourselves and to wake up. Thank you. (Applause)


  1. some moral values shouldnt just be let go…… although theres alot of bad people in the world theres also a lot of good people and some of them have done alot of good due to the conviction of thier moral values. I understand strong moral values lead to bad things but they also lead to good things, we should let people be people and if we want change we should do them through dialect and debates not pills…

  2. She's ANXIOUS as hell! Stressed out to the max, mouth dry as scorched cotton. Painful to watch. Should've taken one of them Prozacs.

  3. Interesting video. I imagine there are great potential gains to such theories but I also imagine others considering using the lessons learned here to manipulate opponents.

  4. and you are the master of universe to judge her !!!!!! you could speak for 20 minutes in front of many people like a GOD with chillest attitude ever, right? you are painful to read, if you want some feedback…. 😉

  5. Drug-induced co-operation: a vision similar to Huxley's Brave New World. The experimental data was rather slight, though.

  6. Very interesting. IMO, The data seems to suggest that ssri's might allow people to make decisions closer to their moral values by changing their attitude or behavior towards a situation. I would argue that I am much more rational after a meal, clarifying my thought process to better hold to my moral beliefs, similarly eating a meal before an exam helps you perform. The actual morals are not altered but rather the initial conditions in which a situation is evaluated levels out to make more sense.

  7. If you set up the dilemma that way it's pretty clear that pushing him is wrong. In that situation you throwing yourself on the tracks would have the same result, if trading a life for five is you're choice you are then presented with an actual moral dilemma(I think this one is crappy because it would never happen). If faced with the choice to kill someone else or yourself in order to save 5 others, what would you do?

  8. If you're horny, try a porn site. There's plenty of them. This talk was intended for intellectual and moral thought and debate. It was not for your masturbatory fantasies.

  9. Needs a larger sample for her experimental data to be reliable, 30 people is not a large enough slice to rely on.

  10. i was thinking perhaps we should serve high-protein tryptophan-laden banquets at summits & conflict resolution meetings … just a thought!

  11. Could the changing morals be due to lack of a universal principle? Such as the non aggression principle (NAP)? Cuz if you're basing your morals on religious principles they'll always change as religious principles are contradictory.
    The 'lifeboat' scenario w/ train is a false dilemma as there is no context, also one would be initiating force if the pushed someone in front of train. Which negates that option if using the NAP.

  12. first question on Bleu Cheese reminds me of Amanda Palmer's funny song about Vegemite.  tongue-in-cheek when she was dating an Aussie.  The acoustic practice session is funnier than the live performance.

  13. interesting but what she calls 'moral values' seems quite simplistic… how the hell do you go from an hypotethical question to the Israel-Palestina conflict?

  14. Narcissist N exorcists n tee totals in wonderland. UN must've created neo Holocaust fiction to end the social injustice they claim to b their drug policy.

  15. Yes there is!! But them who need b there important enough to step in N cause instead of prevent. They r needed too. When. I blame them. 😛 "it's beyond my control." some personal biases as social cultural traditional patterns if them presented as variables

  16. Purrfectly presented idea N consideration task if not hypothetical experiment.
    Found truenorth n knew of them in Bjork video. That is a story addresses the matter as I get it. Not go down welL… If..welL map makers legend N I Am Legend as direction N the key… fixed morals… "Only if gor a night "

  17. Wow this is awful. Giving drugs out in studies for no reason isn't illegal yet? So much absurdity.

  18. DUH. This is why the CIA raced to derail the 1960's counter culture and why the drugs that kill the ego, make you love and give you empathy(empathogens) are illegal and the drugs that kill you and make you bitter are marketed. Happy cooperative people don't fill emotional voids by maxing out credit cards and paying taxes. Keep up the good work MOLLY!

    – Reset.me saving lives(youtube)
    -M.A.P.S(multi-disciplinary association for psychedelic studies)
    -Everything you know about Addiction is Wrong(TED talk)
    -Dr. Gabor Mate

  19. There are "right" or "correct" moral values if we try to understand the nature of the problems such values are trying to address (i.e. the context) in light of what is most promoting of life and wellbeing and reducing of harm and misery. There is a calculus involved, a balance to be made and it does hinge both on the development and preservation of a basic "innate" moral sense and our ability to refine it.

  20. It's not just exogenous chemicals (e.g.. pills) that can alter our brains and change our minds but choices in what kind of thinking and behavior we consistently engage in that are conducive to creating and sustaining the mental well being necessary to achieve the ability to solve our problems in the best , most beneficial way . Repetitively poor choices erode that ability. There seem to be tipping points in behavior that leads to developing serious alterations in brain chemistry and structure. Yes, you can damage your own brain and become more unethical, less cooperative etc. through poor choices and bad habits alone. Attending to the quality of the contents of your consciousness is part of avoiding poor thinking and destructive behavior. Pills have limited positive effects over time as can be seen in many psychotropic drugs.

  21. this whole talk is based on the assumption that a human being is the result of countless random and relatively meaningless events. she assumes that conflicts are solved by relativating their meaning. (sic)
    if she could consider a human being as a complex well balanced system, than she probebly would draw different conclusions from the effects of dilibrate chemical distortion of such a system. she might even ask hersef in how many cases the poisoning of the mind by drugs and other chemicals actually causes destructive responses to a situation of conflict

  22. Veganism is arguably an opinionated topic. However Agriculture from livestock is destroying the earth and that is fact. At the Paris convention on climate change they urged the world to go vegan to basically save the planet. I wish this would happen already! But people are to passionate about eating ham sandwiches.

  23. Of course this is all logical…but you're not incorporating the notion of our Human BioGenetic Biome….which makes our Serotonin/Dopamine for example too….based on foods, etc.

  24. Molly,….I'll be decadent here…."you're beautiful..let's go get a 'snack' together and see if we like different sexual positions before and after a small meal.

    This may take some time and discipline….but,…it's all for "good science"….yes?

  25. How about a third option with the trolley question: throw myself in front of the trolley, thereby saving the five workers and the man with the brief case.

  26. Yes great talk and yes since the 80s with MDMA it is possible to have very positive interactions which have a lasting effect.. The feeling of Empathy created from the drug works to help resolve most of the issues mentioned in the video !! Magic mushrooms and other psychedelics work also when taken in the right set and setting ! Nature has many ways and means to set the tables straight…

  27. 🙂 Oh dear, this sweet, and oh so earnest young lady, actually believes the "rhetoric". She would have been there, offering Tony Blair a sweet before he went into the "talks" about the Iraq war. That decision, like all the rest of them, had been made long before, around a board table, and if Tony hadn't agreed to it, his prosecution for sexually deviancy, pursued under his middle name, would have been revealed, and he wouldn't now be a millionaire. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, my dear. . . oh dear!

  28. Of course a lot of what she says makes sense, the problem is that this line of thinking can easily be stretched into thinking that morals are relative and ultimately irrelevant.
    There needs to be a balance between rational thinking and moral awareness.
    Further more the example she gives is far to complex and religiously inspired to serve as a useful example. In that case an aggressive religion is the cause of getting stuck and blatant refusal to move even even the smallest bit.

  29. For example the boy who very short and the boy who is so tall and the world want them both to see the view behind the wall then trump give them both the same size same height of the box to them but the tall boh doesn't need to use the box he already see the view behind the wall because he saw it must standing next to the wall but the short boy after he used the box to stand on it and still he didn't see any veiw at all . now u know what I try to point to u?

  30. you lost me at the part where you didn't say "… and then we took our results to researchers at reasonably respectable state university medical school, where they were able to replicate our findings."

  31. I feel like this should have blown up more than it has.
    Someone try this content again. Same thing, different package. That guy with the pencils maybe

  32. Apart from God, you cannot be a moral person. He is the unchangeable Morally Just Creator of the heavens and earth.

    So yes, a non believer can choose those acts which feel right. Or base their morals on perceived good/bad. But a person without God is morally bankrupt. It is why Jesus came, to make the impossible possible.

  33. She confuses emotional response with moral reasoning

    Being on TedEd does not legitimize her claims on the topic

    I respect her opinions because thats her right. But i beg to differ….

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