Pushing The Button

A couple of months ago neuroscientist, David Eagleman, held a talk for The School of Life on “Being Yourselves”. The recording is available to view online and it’s a very entertaining and thought-provoking 40 minute presentation, which I would recommend.

He talks about how we can be at conflict with ourselves, how the mind is like a democratic parliament where each political party debates and argues with the others about the direction in which to take ‘the state’ or ‘you’. He discusses how research has shown that one of the most common kinds of conflict we experience in our minds can be broadly described as emotion Vs reason and uses two hypothetical scenarios to illustrate the nature of this conflict. The first scenario he describes is as follows:

There is a train hurtling out of control towards five workers on the track ahead of it. Just before the workers there is a junction from which another track leads off with a single worker on it. You are standing by the junction lever which if pulled will change the direction of the train and send it towards the single worker. Do you pull the lever and save five lives or leave it and save one?

He then changes the scenario slightly. This time you are standing on a foot bridge over the track and can see the train hurtling towards the five workers on the track ahead. There is an obese man standing in front of you and you realise that if you push him off the bridge his weight would be sufficient enough to stop the train and save the five workers. Do you push the obese man off the foot bridge?

He notes from a show of hands by the audience that, even though the dilemma is the same – would you exchange one life for five lives? – Most people’s preferences flip on the second scenario and they choose not to push the man off the bridge even though mathematically both scenarios are identical. This is because, as research has shown, the parts of the brain involved in thinking about the first scenario with the lever are essentially the parts that are used for maths problems and so, as David remarks, “it becomes easy”. When thinking about the second scenario however a whole different set of networks in our brain become involved, ones associated with emotion. These neural networks become active in the second scenario because it requires being directly involved in the act, it requires physically touching another person, and research has shown that such a requirement makes a significant difference to the decisions people make.

To illustrate this point further, David describes a scene from an episode of The Twilight Zone in which a man with dire financial problems is approached by a stranger and offered $10,000 to push the button on a small device he is holding. The man asks what will happen if he pushes the button and the stranger tells him that someone far away, someone you don’t know, will die. The stranger gives the man the device with the button on it and leaves. The man paces up and down all night trying to decide what to do and eventually pushes the button. The stranger returns to the man’s house, gives him the $10,000 and just as he is leaving the man asks him what will happen now. The stranger tells the man that he will give the button to someone else, someone far away, someone he doesn’t know.

These are extreme hypothetical situations that no one is ever likely to encounter in real life of course, but they are revealing none the less. David also touches briefly on how technology has made the horrors of warfare much more palatable to the consciences of soldiers because nowadays they’re often merely pushing a button and watching a computer screen instead of having to be directly involved in the action of killing people.

As I listened, my mind couldn’t help but draw the following parallel. This is what democracy and government has us all doing. We’re all ‘pushing the button’ on someone far away, someone we don’t know, which results in strangers being forced to hand over their money to government.

What if you had to personally ‘collect’ taxes from strangers? What if you had to visit people you don’t know and use physical force to make them hand over their cash, would you do it? Of course not. You wouldn’t do it because the neural networks associated with emotion in your brain would be firing like crazy. Okay, perhaps you would be comfortable enough with sending stiff letters demanding payment, even repossessing a house, but when it came down to kicking someone’s door down, bundling them to the ground, kidnapping them and throwing them into a prison cell for not paying up, would you do it? Most people wouldn’t. They wouldn’t do it because they would be unable to disconnect from the emotional pain, that sharp pang of immorality, of taking someone’s money by force and using violence against them.

Of course, there are certain people whose very job it is to take money by force and kidnap people on a daily basis, – tax collectors, police officers etc – so how do they cope? How do they manage to override their morality, the firing of their neural networks associated with emotion? Equally, how do we cope? Because it’s not just strangers we’re pushing the button on, it’s our own friends and family too of course.


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