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"Harm's Way" -- The Discovery Files

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People are able to detect, within a split second, if a hurtful action they are witnessing is intentional or accidental, new research on the brain at the University of Chicago shows.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Moral compass.

I'm Bob Karson with The Discovery Files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: clock ticking) Say you witness someone being physically harmed, how long does it take you to decide if the harm was accidental or intentional? According to researchers from the University of Chicago, no more than a split second.

The team monitored brain activity in adult volunteers as the subjects watched videos of people who suffered accidental or intentional harm. When the clips showed intentional harm, areas of the brain linked with emotion and moral decision-making were quickly activated. When the videos showed accidental harm being inflicted, there was no such response in those parts of the brain.

The study is the first to explain how our brains are hard-wired to recognize intentional harm, and shows that moral evaluations of harm are instant and emotional. It suggests that our moral responses stem not from deliberate reasoning, but instead from emotion and the perception of intention.

The findings may aid in other areas of neurodevelopment research. And may give us insights into the moral responses of people who display cold, unfeeling, or even psychopathic behavior.

As you make moral judgments in milliseconds& let your amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex be your guide.

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the governments National Science Foundation. Learn more at

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