Less Emotional People Are More Concerned With Justice


Marcus Quigmire/Wikimedia

Psychologists from the University of Chicago have linked high "justice sensitivity"—how individuals react to experiences of injustice and unfairness—to lower emotional sensitivity. For the study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers relied on both brain scans and questionnaires that assessed justice sensitivity and cognitive and emotional empathy.

"We were interested [in]… the contribution of emotion and cognition in moral judgment," said lead researcher Jean Decety. 

Justice is obviously a very broad concept—social justice differs from vigilante justice differs from criminal justice. But at its most basic, justice is simply "the quality of being just, impartial, or fair," according to Merriam-Webster. Emotions are anything but impartial, so it's not surprising that highly emotional people would perhaps fail at assessing justness. But it's strange that they may be less concerned with justice or its execution.* A deep concern for fairness seems to me like a pretty emotional proposition. 

Nonetheless, brain scans administered while study participants viewed videos of "good" and "bad" behavior showed people with high justice sensitivity also had less activity in parts of the brain linked with emotional processing. Meanwhile, they showed greater than average activity in parts of the brain linked to higher-order cognitive processing such as planning, decision making, abstract reasoning, interpreting social cues, and distinguishing between different perspectives.

"Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven," said Decety. He noted that this goes against conventional wisdom about the "sentimental motivations" of those involved with human rights and social and criminal justice causes.  

For more on the scientific basis of political and moral disposition, check out social psychologist Jonathan Haidt's May 2012 story for Reason. According to Haidt (and ample research), genetics explains between one-third and one-half of the variability among people in their political attitudes.

* To be clear, that's not precisely what this study says. 

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  1. It’s because high-running emotions cause people to misunderstand that fairness is treating people equally instead of a cosmic seesaw of real and imagined slights that has to be maintained in perfect balance no matter what cruelties that requires.

    1. That is a very good way to put it.

    2. There is a large amount of semantic confusion in American culture about “fairness”, “justice” and particularly “equality”. They are not the same things, in spite of what the news media or teacher’s unions would claim.

      1. I think that’s why I had a little trouble writing about this study, b/c those terms are so variable and the study itself seems a bit confused about them (for instance, one of the tests of justice sensitivity had to do with whether or not someone gave money to a homeless person, wherein giving of the money was registered as the ‘just’ thing to do).

        1. (I mean, I’m not saying it’s not “just” to give money to people begging on the streets, but I also don’t think it’s unjust not to..)

          1. I think some of the confusion I would have with this test is that the giving of the money / deserving of the money is not where libertarians would attach the “justice” of the act. Our moral outlook begins before that, judging whether the giving was a voluntary act or not.

            All the “deserve” in the world doesn’t sway us if the “giving” is coerced.

            1. ^^^^THIS

        2. If you get the time, research the “Hartman Value Profile”. “Dr.” Hartman did a bunch of work in the mid 20th century about ‘values’ and attempted to create a system for actually mathematically calculating the values of a person. Fast forward to the modern day and corporate HR departments have latched onto a god-awful “Hartman Value Profile” which is a kind of astrology test they give prospective employees to see if they have the correct ‘values’.

        3. That seems like a really bad example of justice. I wouldn’t say justice comes into that decision at all. It seems to me that justice has to do with people in power using that power in a… um, just way.

          “Justice” is a bad word to use in a study like this. People have been completely failing to agree on what it means since Plato wrote the Republic.

          1. I find that strange, since I feel like I have a pretty clear idea of what justice is.

            Justice is the conformance of the law with objective morality. Note, I say objective morality, because although I think such a thing is possible, I think humanity is in a constant process of attempting to figure out what that is. And it doesn’t include religious sensitivities like sex before marriage. Even if the religious don’t acknowledge tihs, society has already decided that the correct moral principle is to separate private morality from what is morally permissible in a secular pluralistic society. I.e. we’ve made progress towards the definition of objective morality since the middle-ages.

            1. I think that is a pretty decent definition. But it’s still hard to get people to agree on it, particularly when it gets mixed up with ideas about fairness or equality.

      2. Why would anyone take the positions of the News Media or the Teachers Unions on anything seriously? Both are, on their own showing, refuges for the moronic, the work-shy, and the petty.

        1. Unfortunately, that doesn’t keep them from having a great deal of power in terms of shaping opinion and even thought.

  2. In a related study, the same researchers concluded that libertarians are child-hating sociopaths.

    1. I, for one, am a child-loving sociopath.

      1. You’re obviously a small “l” libertarian.

        1. He knows what he said.

  3. They claim to be measuring emotional empathy, and not just emotionalism in general.

    I am hyper-concerned with justice, and am probably one of the worst people here at containing and managing my emotions.

    But I bet I’d score low on whatever BS “empathy test” these quacks have developed.

    1. Good point. I kind of overlooked the distinction between emotionalism in general and emotional empathy, and that might be key here.

  4. A deep concern for fairness seems to me like a pretty emotional proposition.

    Sure, yeah. It’s unfair that rich people are rich!

    Doesn’t get more emotional than that. It’s not based on anything rational.

    1. The rich haven’t paid their fair share! How could they have? They’re rich!

    2. It’s not necessarily unfair if rich people are rich. How did they GET rich? Did they pillage or steal? Did they lie or cheat or use force? Or did they trade and exchange goods? Or perhaps invent a new system of distribution or communication that benefits others?

      If they created value, it would be unfair if they WEREN’T rich.

      1. People who hate the rich do not understand the concept of creating value. They see a fixed amount of wealth out there, and thus every rich person represents scores of starving children. That’s how they feel, and no amount of reasoning will change it.

        1. I’d be interested in learning how rentiers or rent-seeking create value.

      2. Or did they get someone else to do their bidding- i.e. crony capitalism.

    3. How amny people that say that though are just parroting some bullshit they heard on social media and don’t really have any firm ideological rational for it.

  5. Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain-scanning device, the team studied what happened in the participants’ brains as they judged videos depicting behavior that was morally good or bad. For example, they saw a person put money in a beggar’s cup or kick the beggar’s cup away. The participants were asked to rate on a scale how much they would blame or praise the actor seen in the video. People in the study also completed questionnaires that assessed cognitive and emotional empathy, as well as their justice sensitivity.

    As expected, study participants who scored high on the justice sensitivity questionnaire assigned significantly more blame when they were evaluating scenes of harm, Decety said. They also registered more praise for scenes showing a person helping another individual.

    All I’m getting form this is that people who have a strong moral reaction aren’t necessarily emotional. This just throws cold water on the notion that morals cannot be arrived at thru logic and reason.

  6. Perhaps also emotions are wrapped up in the here and now, the present moment. Perceptions of cause and effect – which is the basic impartial law of justice – get over ridden by emotions of pity and sympathy, or anger and fear, depending on who we identify with.

  7. “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven,” said Decety. He noted that this goes against conventional wisdom about the “sentimental motivations” of those involved with human rights and social and criminal justice causes.

    I’m not sure what this study really tells us. Certain types of “justice” are almost entirely emotionally based.

    Like the social-justice activist who lost a vote on her college disengaging from Israeli companies, and she went into an apeshit display of wailing and tears?

    1. The excerpts from the article leave all kinds of room for definitions.

      Define fairness and justice for starters.

      1. As well as “good” and “bad” behavior.

      2. “social justice”

        I need a definition of this, please.

        Why is it necessary to put anything before the word “justice”?

        1. Said it before, but: if it were really justice, you’d call it that. Putting adjectives in front of it indicates it’s not really “justice”.

          In practice, “social justice” never seems to boil down to anything other than “structuring society the way I think it should be structured.”

          1. I first heard it as a Jesse Jackson throw in phrase as in “economic justice, social justice” then later “environmental justice” started to get tossed in.

          2. “Social Justice” is to Justice as “Political Science” is to Science.

          3. It’s Orwellian bullshit, typical progressive modus operandi.

  8. Impartiality is one of those chimerical virtues that doesn’t actually add much to everyday human moral calculus.

  9. If you think of justice in terms of natural rights, then I’d have to say that emotional people don’t believe in justice.

    Tony is a great example of this.

    1. Agreed. Libertarians are far more concerned with genuine justice than progressives.

      We don’t just emotionally react to something like Bill Gates having a billion dollars with “that’s not fair! waaa!”

      Instead, we’re busy thinking through the question “is it fair for Bill Gates ro have a billion dollars?”
      And that thinking involves deeper thinking about what it means for something to be “fair” or “just” than merely equal distribution.
      Like, how did Bill Gates get a billion dollars? Did he violate laws in the process of doing it? Did he do something unethical to get it? Under what circumstances is the accumulation of wealth just, and when it is not just?

      1. Bill Gates made everyone richer by providing an operating system and a host of programs that allowed people to improve their lives.

        Try to explain that to a leftist.

        1. Yes, and it would be unjust to take his wealth from him without a clear reason for why him having it is unjust.

          Progressives never really evolve beyond equal distribution, which is the morality of a five year old.

        2. But he made the lives of all web developers miserable with Internet Explorer. NEVER FORGET.

      2. The whole idea of “social justice” really fucked up any attempts to agree on the already tricky concept of justice.

        Roughly, I’d say that justice is something like “people get what they deserve”. But in “social justice” it seems to come to mean that people should be given what they need or desire.

        1. Justice is reactive. For example when someone steals, that is an injustice. Justice is getting back the stolen property and/or punishing the thief.

          Social justice is proactive, and by definition injustice. It is an absence of inequality which can only be rectified by institutionalized injustice committed by the same organization, government, which is supposed to punish injustice.

          The concept of social justice is an intentional ploy to destroy the concept of justice. Just as defining freedom as force is an intentional ploy to destroy the concept of liberty.

          1. Social justice is an attempt to redefine justice, to hijack the positive linguistic connoations of the word and use them to generate public sympathy for progressive values.

            It’s the same Orwellian bullshit they’ve been attempting for the last 100 years. Control people’s thoughts by controlling the words they are allowed to use.

            It’s basically something they came up with to re-brand socialism when socialism got a bad name.

            1. Bingo. They lose the argument over what Justice is, so they redefine the discussion in terms of Social Justice, using skewed definitions and jargon designed to push the argument in their direction.

              1. Yes, and then they admire themselves for how smart they are.

                Look, aren’t we clever, how we’ve redefined all the terms to our advantage? We’re SO SMART!!!

        2. No, “justice” has to do with what the LAW says. “Fairness” is whether someone gets what they morally deserve or not. “Justice” is when the laws says they should get what they morally deserve.

          That is to say, something is “just” when the law is RIGHT, and “unjust” when the law is WRONG.

          Or in other words, justice is aceived when the law conforms with a correct understanding of moral deserts.

          1. That is a fine definition for legal justice, but I don’t think that is the only way the word can be used. There is also the idea of divine or cosmic justice (though that may just be man projecting human institutions onto the universe).

            1. Ok, maybe instead of the law, we can substitute any entity or abstract entity thought to have authority over our lives.

              Like, a parent can be “unjust” to a child by doling out an incorrect judgement. But a child can only be “unfair” to another child, because the child is not in a position of authority over the other child.

  10. Libertarians have often been accued of being unemotional or unempathetic, but despite progressive claims to be champions of justice and fairness, it is actually libertarians who are the more serious about creating a universally fair and just society.

    Libertarians are engaged in the project of attempting to devise an internally consitent set of rights and laws under which all individuals are treated equally, regardless of race, sex, class, or any other external characteristic. We’re actually trying to create a level playing field for everyone.

    In the best light, progressives can be seen as attempting to rectify historical injustices caused by racism and other discrimination. But they do this by intentionally tilting the playing field, and the problem with that is that it is impossible to know when the playing field is sufficiently tilted. As a result, this degenerates into a pure battle for power amoung identity based interest groups. Instead of attempting to create a mutually just society, you simply end up with everyone battling to get the most advantage for themselves and their own group.

    1. it is impossible to know when the playing field is sufficiently tilted. As a result, this degenerates into a pure battle for power amoung identity based interest groups. Instead of attempting to create a mutually just society, you simply end up with everyone battling to get the most advantage for themselves and their own group.

      Which essentially degenerates into a big phat emotion-fest.

      Well said, by the way, Hazel.

    2. Yes, well said.

  11. Can we deduce that those with the strongest reactions would be more likely to actually take individual action when faced with immoral acts?

    Who would be more likely to act as an individual and who more likely to act as part of a larger group?

  12. Let’s try this:

    Two groups. Both claim to be fighting for justice.

    One group defends the right of speech, even ugly speech which hurts other people, because to this group, it seems obvious what will happen if you start judging the value of speech, and elevating certain types of speech above others.

    The other group believes that certain speech can be hurtful, or even dangerous, and believes that certain groups have a history of being discriminated against and therefore deserve to be shielded from certain types of speech. The government’s duty is to elevate certain speech over other types to make sure traditionally oppressed groups are not marginalized.

    Which of the two groups is most likely to be highly “emotional”?

    1. Which one actaully cares the most versus which one pretends to care the most by feigning outrage because you know image.

    2. Here’s the thing:
      Libertarians have a strong theoretical moral foundation to stand on when it comes to protecting all types of speech, even offensive speech. The principle of equal justice and equal treatment under the law is a strong universal principle that it is difficult for anyone to argue against.

      Progressives lack that kind of clear moral principle underlying their belief that offensive speech should be suppressed. They just perceive that some people are hurt by this pseech, and believe that some sort of rule should prevent the hurt.

      Now, what happens when a person with a strong, clear, theoretical argument confronts someone who just has a feeling that something is wrong? They are going to fall back on emotion and have a hissy fit.

  13. Less emotional and more rational individuals are emotionally mature enough to look past their own selfish and petty insecurities to think about the broader picture.

    I may not like the guy who smokes pot and I may not like the jerk that trolls people with offensive speech. But I don’t let my emotional reaction to those people prevent from seeing it would be an injustice to initiate force against either for engaging in activity that harms no one.

    It’s for difficult for the social justice warriors to understand the principle of first do no harm.

  14. There is a difference between reactions and resposes.

    Reactions are emotional.

    Responses, assuming they’re not reverse engineered excuses for reactions, tend to be more rational.

    Justice should be responsive, not reactive.

  15. Emotional people are much more likely to be arbitrary.

  16. “A deep concern for fairness seems to me like a pretty emotional proposition”

    I would say that your intution about this is correct based on my experiences dealing with people. But what do I know, I’m not a super-powered magnet.

    1. Fairness and justice are two separate things. Fair is a concept steeped in a personal, emotional view of equity. Justice is a higher standard that’s been refined by reason.

      For example, it might not seem fair to many that the Westboro Baptist people cause emotional anguish to grieving families by protesting funerals.

      But it is justice that they are allowed to do so unmolested because justice is about preserving people’s rights and rectifying violations of them.

      1. Perhaps also the selective outrage throws me off. Police brutality. NSA spying Meh. No free birth control. That’s not fair. waaaaa.

    2. “But what do I know, I’m not a super-powered magnet.”

      This is going to be my new disclaimer for everything … 😉

  17. New study shows that rich people who are considering making huge donations to science show higher cognitive processing functions than rich people who don’t want to donate – their brain images show increased activity in the asshole part of the brain.

    1. So you’re saying the Koch brothers have higher cognitive processing functions than most liberals?

      1. Kochs – $100s of millions to hospitals, arts, etc.

        Ted Turner – “here you go, UN!”

        Soros – “here you go, hateful leftwing groups!”

  18. In my experience emotional people want what they want and there is little reasoning with them. They tend to shut down when confronted with logic. The study and my anecdotal experiences, if both true, jibe.

  19. “nothing”
    the unjust man complained
    “is just” (“or un-” the just rejoined

    ? e e cummings

  20. “high justice sensitivity also had less activity in parts of the brain linked with emotional processing.”

    The activity in the brain is often the inverse of what you’d expect to see in regards to actual behavior.

    It is beleived that this occurs because people are very well practiced when encountering certain stimuli, and their brain has no need to burn energy concocting a response when they have already done so many times before, so it defaults to a past learned response and saves energy.

  21. All this brain scan crap is overrated. Neurologists don’t think very highly of its usefulness for seeing how activity in different parts of a brain are being affected by physical nerve disorders, for example.

  22. Fairness is actually a sense so deeply ingrained that even our close relatives the chimpanzees possess it. Experiments show that they will choose to go without food altogether rather than accept food inferior to what’s given another chimp. So fairness, which is not an abstraction but a biologically based intuition, is wrapped up with equitability.

    Unchecked capitalism is rife with distortions of both, and really is not defensible as a “natural” order (since free market fundies love to invoke the appeal to nature fallacy). It’s much more accurate to say that some extent of “socialism” is more in line with how humans naturally expect to live. And it makes total sense because we are a very social species and depend totally on social structures, including means to equitably distribute resources, to perpetuate ourselves. Distortions in a fundamental sense of fairness are what lead to conflict.

    Which is why in order to maintain a plutocratic regime you have to invent artificial defenses, big castle walls in earlier times, and today including perhaps the most effective of all–relentless propaganda. Thanks for doing your part, libertarians.

    1. That’s for pointing out how progressives have the moral sensibilities of a chimpanzee, Tony.

      1. I believe I’m saying that libertarians are somewhere below primates (and possibly canines) in the sophistication of their conception of society. Species with less complex brains tend to live by the “I got mine, fuck you” code.

        1. There has been social science research that shows that 5 year olds (and apparently chimpanzees) equate fairness with equal distribution. But that by the time kids hit about 8 or 9 years old they have moved on to fairness as proportionality. This is pretty consistent with chimpanzees being maybe as smart as a human 3-year old.

          The libertarian concept of justice is far more sophisticated then equal distribution. People get benefits in proportion to the value they provide to others, as measured by people’s voluntary choices to give them those benefits in a free exchange.

          1. So sophisticated that it bears no relation to the real world, in which there is no such thing as totally free exchange, and so economic justice can only be attained by the careful crafting of rules and regulations and redistribution schemes to approximate what you’re talking about.

            I’ll concede for the sake of argument that your system is more sophisticated than “everyone gets an equal share,” but nobody’s talking about that. Human adults do factor in things like productivity, deservingness, and other things that would make distribution both unequal and fair. But the sense I get from most libertarians is “life isn’t fair, suck it up.” Sometimes in those exact words.

            1. Yes, Tony, blah blah it’s all an indistinguishable mush, therefore we can arbitrarily designate winners and losers according to whoever has the most votes.

              That is your concept of “economic justice”.

              Ours is about attempting to craft rules and regulations that actually *do* make economic exchange as free as possible.

              We’re working towards the perfection of universal rights and justice. You’re thorwing up your hands and just doing whatever you feel like, because might makes right. And gimme, gimme, I want.

              1. Who said arbitrarily? Making a more perfect system is what I claim I’m after too. It’s not my problem that you guys can’t see past your obsessive fixation on the burden of taxation to millionaires to the exclusion of almost literally any other interest in the world.

                1. Nobody’s fixated on how many taxes millionaires pay except you.

                  What we’re concerned with is the justice (or lack thereof) of seizing property that someone else legitimately earned. Whether the person who owns the property is rich or poor is irrelevant, the law should be blind to that.

                  Your idea of a “more perfect” system is one that is jury-rigged to the n-th degree to achieve the outcome you actually want – equal distribution. You have to throw actual fairness and justice out the window to get there.

                  1. I don’t want equal outcomes, I want to start with achieving, to some extent, exactly what you guys claim is virtuous about capitalism, that it rewards merit. That’s not really what it does in its natural state.

                    But as I don’t believe failing at capitalism to be a crime punishable by death, I also believe in the justice of a safety net. And as you surely understand by now, you can’t be for some taxes and then claim all taxes are evil theft, so it’s just a matter of social priorities.

    2. This. This is the kind of stupid that makes me think you’re a real person.

      Distortions in a fundamental sense of fairness are what lead to conflict.

      Beautifully, absurdly stupid.

      1. Really. This like saying “Conflict is caused by me not getting stuff I want.”

        Sort of like the temper-tantrum theory of justice.

        1. Or rather, “Conflict is causes by me not getting things I think I deserve.”

          Because some people feel they are entitled to have their needs taken care of by others.

  23. fMRIs are compared against an individualized baseline. The study’s results would also be consistent with people with high justice sensitivity extensively utilizing the emotional areas of their brain all the time(or at least when the baseline was formed). Their conclusions appear to be tainted by confirmation bias.

  24. I think it makes sense. Justice refers to a set of rules. The subjects that test well on all of these cognitive skills are likely better at examining a situation, categorizing it and evaluating it according to their existing knowledge. You don’t need to have a strong emotional reaction to classify something as right or wrong, as the judgment is made in reference to a set of learned rules, not necessarily your own emotional response. And if this is the case, then I don’t think the results are at odds with a “sentimentalist” theory.

  25. where high-functioning autistic individuals come to wax objective concerning all things fair and just.

    1. Oh brother. I have a suspicion that any sufficiently intelligent person would be considered “high-functioning autistic” by the average American.

      Do you have intellectual interests that are “abnormal”? You might be autistic!
      Do you react to events with logic instead of emotion? You might be autistic!
      Do you spend your free time debating cognitive science and moral philosophy with other similar logical people with wierd interests? Clearly, you are autistic!

  26. Quackery and pseudoscience are the new science.

  27. “For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”
    ? G.K. Chesterton

  28. My God, this is the most masturbatory comment section (and article) I’ve ever heard.

    You all fetishize the ideal of the emotionless, rational badass, but the fact of the matter is, no one is better then their amygdala, and leftists and libertarians are, on average, probably the same level of emotional maturity.

    I regularly read the comments on articles both here at Reason and over at Think Progress, and let me tell you, neither side has the moral high ground. You all have your feelings and just create different (totally morally inconsistent) systems with which to justify them and knock down the others.

    Grow up. Give up.

    1. Who’s fetishizing what? You’re the ones who keep telling us we have no empathy.

  29. This study is silly, because it depends on a subjective determination of who has “high justice sensitivity.” Who made those categorizations of people? By what standards? One person’s justice is another person’s injustice. A judge I find to be horribly unjust probably believes he cares about justice. As a defense lawyer, I am concerned about justice. The prosecutor probably feels he is concerned about justice. Yet, we often disagree. As for judges, I often find that emotional judges tend to be highly just or unjust, with unemotional judges somewhere in the middle. Yet, that is not always true. To think that a person who is upset about injustice is less concerned about justice than someone not upset about injustice at first glance seems to be something of a contradiction in terms. As an exercise in science, I have to give this study a D-.

  30. Haven’t we decided fMRI studies are bullshit?

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