Why do we so often ignore the influence of situations on behavior?
Interestingly, exactly this medial prefrontal region is the one whose activity preceded subjects’opting to interpret others’behaviors as resulting from their dispositions to act. The implication is that our prediction machinery engages automatically when we see people acting, and to the degree that we are thinking about others’ mental states we are also likely to ignore the constraining influence of situations on behavior. Because research has shown that people with autism (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith, 1985) and typical older adults (aged 65+, Moran, Jolly, and Mitchell, 2012) represent mental states less than do typical healthy younger adults, the surmised link between mentalizing and the FAE implies that these populations would not be as likely to commit the FAE. This prediction is yet to be tested. The idea that mentalizing causes the FAE is still a conjecture for now; we can’t know for sure that medial prefrontal activity caused people to make those attributions, only that it predicted them. We also can’t know for sure that this activation definitely implied that participants were representing mental states. Because fMRI can give us information only about how brain activity correlates with behavior, rather than causes it, this technique alone cannot answer the question of whether mental state representation leads to the FAE. To answer that question, scientists could turn to another technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). TMS uses brief magnetic pulses to increase or decrease neuronal activity in specific brain regions. Its most important contribution is in allowing scientists to see what cognitive changes happen when they introduce causal changes in brain activity. Scientists have used this technique to improve people’s ability to retrieve object names (Mottaghy et al., 1999) among other cognitive abilities. Another area where TMS has produced an interesting and provocative result is in moral judgments (Young et al., 2010). Young and colleagues (2010) applied TMS to a region of the temporoparietal junction that had previously been implicated in representing others’intentions (Saxe & Kanwisher, 2003). Their experiment found that TMS applied over this region reduced reliance on intentions in moral judgments; people who had attempted to harm another were judged less harshly than people who had accidentally harmed another –counter to the standard Western legal model of a person’s intentions weighing more than the outcome of their actions.
Perhaps TMS stimulation aimed at reducing medial prefrontal activity would make it less likely for study participants to commit the FAE, and thus more likely to see the influence of situations. Of course, few people would sign up for an experiment in which the scientists promised to impair their ability to predict and respond to others’mental states, and here lies an interesting closing point about mental state representation. Perhaps the very fact that we have evolved to be so hyper-aware of others’intentions bears with it the ironic cost of finding those intentions in the least useful of places; in the grumpy actions of the waiter who has just lost a parent, in the inconsiderate words of a woman at a paint counter whose house has just been defaced, and in the mind of the computers who steadfastly refuse to submit to “ Control-P print”. On this basis, we should all be grateful that we can read minds at all, but let’s not forget that understanding one person’s antisocial behavior is just a different shoe away.
Andrews-Hanna, J. R., Reidler, J. S., Sepulcre, J., Poulin, R., & Buckner, R. L. (2010a). Functional-anatomic fractionation of the brain's default network. Neuron, 65, 550-562.
Andrews-Hanna, J. R., Reidler, J. S., Huang, C., & Buckner, R. L. (2010b). Evidence for the default network's role in spontaneous cognition. Journal of Neurophysiology, 104, 322-335.