Researchers have found that we are hard-wired to seek justice. The findings by the Vanderbilt University in Nashville showed that a person has a natural instinct to see justice done when listening to graphic details of a premeditated crime. No real surprise there.
Researchers took a look at the brain scans of 30 volunteers during the study. The 30 volunteers were “read a series of brief scenarios that described how the actions of a protagonist named John brought harm to either Steve or Mary,” according to a press release. Some versions described the harm to Steve or Mary in horrific detail. Others described the crimes in a more simple manner, and some versions read like it was an accident. The 30 volunteers were then asked how they would punish John for the crimes.
Emotions spiked in the volunteers when John’s actions were described in a gruesome way, leading to an increase in the punishment the volunteers seeked. You see the same reactions in public opinion during high-profile court cases.
Lead researcher Professor Rene Marois said, “A fundamental aspect of the human experience is the desire to punish harmful acts, even when the victim is a perfect stranger.”
What about when it seemed like the harm was accidental? The study shows that yes, we humans also have compassion. “This higher punishment level only applied when the participants considered the resulting harm to be intentional. When they considered it to be unintentional, the way it was described didn’t have any effect.”
Dr. Michael Treadway acknowledged that people react more emotionally to more gruesome language. He also talked about how the legal system tries to make sure this doesn’t affect the outcome of trials.
“Although the underlying scientific basis of this effect wasn’t known until now, the legal system recognized it a long time ago and made provisions to counteract it,” said Dr Treadway.
“Judges are permitted to exclude relevant evidence from a trial if they decide that its probative value is substantially outweighed by its prejudicial nature.”
While the courts have known about heightened emotions for a while now, researchers can now firmly prove that our justice seeking ways are instinctual.