Feeling Bad for Someone Makes You Less Smart


So that’s how con-men trick you out of your money.

I’ve seen enough grifter movies to know how it’s done. The long cons involve a lot of planning, sure, but the short way to nick a few bucks is to play the sympathy card. “My car broke down and I lost my wallet.” “My baby is sick and some jerk just stole my purse with the medicine.” Charlatans keep using these tricks because they work, and researchers may have finally proved why. The human brain can be thought to have two systems, one is the analytical system that deduces solutions to problems involving math or logic, and the other is where emotional empathy comes from. Anthony Jack, a professor from Case Western Reserve University, conducted a study published this week in NeuroImage and the results seem to prove that both systems in the brain can’t work at the same time.

“Empathetic and analytic thinking are, at least to some extent, mutually exclusive in the brain,” said Jack. “This is the cognitive structure we’ve evolved.”

The study took 45 college students and asked them to answer problems while having their brains scanned by an MRI machine. Half the problems dealt with responding to emotions or to think about someone else might feel, while the others required physics to solve. The images produced by the MRI scan showed that parts of the brain we know to be associated with analytical thinking shut down when solving the social problems and vice versa. This process is called neural inhibition.

“We see neural inhibition between the entire brain network we use to socially, emotionally and morally engage with others, and the entire network we use for scientific, mathematical and logical reasoning,” said Jack. A healthy brain is one that can switch between the two networks to have a well-rounded response.

The experiment might mean more than just knowing why con-men ply their trade the way they do. Jack thinks this knowledge could be used to change the way we treat disorders like autism. “Treatment needs to target a balance between these two networks. At present most rehabilitation, and more broadly most educational efforts of any sort, focus on tuning up the analytic network,” he said.

Also, people in leadership positions need to realize the separation. “You want the CEO of a company to be highly analytical in order to run a company efficiently, otherwise it will go out of business,” he said. “But, you can lose your moral compass if you get stuck in an analytic way of thinking.

“You’ll never get by without both networks.”

Someone tell that to the next games publisher who lays off half a studio after it ships a successful game.

Source: Eureka Alert

About the author