Knowing is Not Enough

By Rowdy Otto Riemer

"…knowing the right thing to do isn’t always enough to motivate people to act wisely."

Does it bother you how people smoke when they know it’s harmful? Or how about people with addictions to drugs? Don’t they realize that they need help? Don’t they know their behavior is destructive? How about kids? They know the rules and break them anyway, sometimes even when they know they’re going to get caught. The problem is that knowing the right thing to do isn’t always enough to motivate people to act wisely.

In one of his online lectures, neuroscientist and Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky discusses aggression. In particular, he focused on the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. One thing he mentions is that activity in one region inhibits activity in the other. People with extremely damaged or missing prefrontal cortexes can be fully aware of what they should do and at the same time be completely unable to do it.

As an example, Sapolsky describes the following test. The test conductor shows the subject some M&M's in his or her open hands - five M&M's in one hand and one M&M in the other hand. The subject is instructed that if they choose the hand with the single M&M, they will be given the five M&M’s from the other hand, but if they choose the hand with the five M&M's, they will be given the one M&M from the other hand.

If the subject has a severely damaged or missing prefrontal cortex, he or she can fully explain that they know it's better to choose the hand with the single M&M; however, they are unable to keep from reaching for the hand with five M&Ms.

Sapolsky also discusses Phineas Gauge, whose ability to behave properly was destroyed along with his prefrontal cortex in an accident.

Of course, most of us have normally functioning prefrontal cortexes, but within the "normal" range, it still varies as to how well each of our prefrontal cortexes function. That’s one of the reasons some of us retire rich and some of us wind up as homeless bums. Certainly, knowing the difference between making good and bad decisions is important, but our ability to act on that knowledge varies.

"Certainly, knowing the difference between making good and bad decisions is important, but our ability to act on that knowledge varies."

So consider the political implications of our variable ability to act wisely. Libertarians and conservatives generally have little empathy for people who act foolishly. They preach personal responsibility, and they act as if people who know better can simply choose to do better. I often have this attitude myself.

Of course we’re better off when we’re able to act wisely. If people had the discipline to live within their means and demand that our government would do the same, life would be better for everyone. If people would control their anger, they wouldn’t spend so much time in jail for getting in bar fights. Obviously, there’s an endless number of examples of how we would benefit if people just did what they’re supposed to do.

But the reality of neurobiology seems to say this is a pipe dream. Our brains are biochemical machines following the laws of physics. Every decision we make is a function of several factors, among which are the various aspects of our neurophysiology. Blaming someone with a poorly functioning prefrontal cortex is, to some degree, like blaming a natural disaster for its destruction. The blame won’t fix much.

This doesn’t mean we should abandon holding people responsible for their actions. Broadly, societal expectations define behavioral and decision making boundaries. If we held no one responsible for their actions, our behavior as a whole would certainly suffer. Sapolsky also presented two examples of individuals who had been missing their prefrontal cortexes from an early age. One was a murderer and rapist who knew his crimes were wrong, but committed them regardless. The other simply annoyed everyone with incessant piano playing. One difference between the two is that they grew up in different environments; they were subject to different expectations.

Knowing more about our prefrontal cortexes doesn’t necessarily simplify how we deal with people who act poorly. Like most issues, the reality is much more complicated than we want it to be. But I think it’s safe to say that we shouldn’t be so smug when we consider the misbehavior of others. Our expectations of others can be more realistic. We can still have regard for the rights and well being of criminals, especially when many of them are known to have impaired prefrontal cortexes. When we see someone misbehave, we can perhaps feel bad for them as well as be angry.

And no matter what one’s track record of good decisions may be, one should remember that each of us are simply an accident away from ending up like Phineas Gage.

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