Guilt And Punishment: Research Finds How Your Brain May Make Biased Decisions

Guilt And Punishment: Research Finds How Your Brain May Make Biased Decisions

Dealing with guilt and punishment is a part of civilized life. In America, the jury system determines the guilt of the accused after seeing all the evidence. After the jury decides, a judge will determine the appropriate punishment for the crime.

It turns out that the American justice system is a metaphorical way of doling out punishments. Research at Vanderbilt University has found that the processes used to assess guilt and punishment happen in different parts of your brain. This is interesting because the research suggests that one can change, and not just affect, another.

Essentially, one part of your brain might believe a person is without guilt, but another may still want to punish them. These two parts may be mutually exclusive. However, both parts need to be balanced in order for justice to be carried out in a fair way.

The report is called From Blame to Punishment: Disrupting Prefrontal Cortex Activity Reveals Norm Enforcement Mechanisms. In the study, the researchers explain that they used rTMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) on a specific area of the brain to alter the activity using a cell phone booster. The area of the brain manipulated by the scientists is known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.


The experiment included 66 volunteers. The volunteers were given scenarios of crimes that ranged from property destruction to death. The group was also told how responsible the suspect was for the crime.

Then, 33 people were given active rTMS while the other half were given a placebo. The subjects then had to decide what punishment to enforce on the criminals in the scenarios. These scenarios ranged from threats to home security, as well as assaults committed by the felons.

The results saw that those who had their brains manipulated with rTMS chose smaller, less-impactful punishments. This was even true for suspects that were fully responsible for the crimes in the scenarios.

In the cases where the accused was completely guilty but only committed a small crime, many of the subjects chose to award only small punishments.


The results of the study suggested that the disruption to this area of the brain changed how the subjects made their decisions. This was despite the fact that the information did not change.

According to this research, deciding suitable punishment requires that the two different parts of the brain work in tandem to find a balance. In the study, the rTMS upset this balance and interfered with deciding punishments.

Previous research has suggested that the part of the brain reviewed in this study is used primarily in simple tasks. It also plays a role in memory and behavior. Researchers now believe that it is an important part of complex decision making.

This research has important implications for the increasing prevalence of neuroscience in the criminal justice system. Understanding how the brain makes decisions about guilt and punishment may eventually help the court system ensure that better decisions are made.


This research, in combination with other advances in brain science, like understanding criminal behavior, can help ensure that the appropriate punishments are delivered to relevant guilty parties.

A better understanding of how guilt and punishment are decided will be especially important in the field of juvenile crimes. Understanding how punishments are decided for juvenile crime will hopefully help create a fairer system of punishment for youth.

For example, recent research has suggested that youth are more likely to commit worse crimes when they are a part of a group. Younger brains respond more to rewards in groups than they do alone. However, current punishments for gang crimes are harsher than punishments for crimes committed alone. This is in direct opposition to scientific evidence.

Assessing blameworthiness and delegating punishment are distinct cognitive processes. Hence, understanding the effect of these processes on decision making is important. If the court system can recognize that the processes in decision making are as complex as the criminal brain itself, it can work to create systems to keep these processes in check.


Although it’s impossible to know for sure, some estimates suggest that between 2.3% and 5% of American prisoners are innocent of the crimes they were convicted of. Using neuroscience research to make sure better decisions are made can help keep innocent people out of jail.

Featured photo credit: David Ohmer via

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Last Updated on June 21, 2018

Science Says Screaming Is Good For You

Science Says Screaming Is Good For You

There are many reasons why people might scream – they’re angry, scared, or in pain (or maybe they’re in a metal band!). Some might say that screaming is bad, but here’s why science says it’s good for you.

“For the first time in the history of psychology there is a way to access feelings, hidden away, in a safe way and thus to reduce human suffering. It is, in essence, the first science of psychotherapy.” — Dr. Arthur Janov

Primal Therapy

Dr. Arthur Janov invented Primal Therapy in the late 1960’s. It is a practice that allows the patient to face their repressed emotions from past trauma head on and let those emotions go. This treatment is intended to cure any mental illness the patient may have that surfaced from this past trauma. In most cases, Primal Therapy has lead Dr. Janov’s patients to scream towards the end of their session, though it was not part of the original procedure. During a group therapy session that was at a standstill, Dr. Janov says that one of his patients, a student he called Danny, told a story that inspired him to implement a technique that he never would have thought of on his own.


How it Started

“During a lull in our group therapy session, he told us a story about a man named Ortiz who was currently doing an act on the London stage in which he paraded around in diapers drinking bottles of milk. Throughout his number, Ortiz is shouting, ‘Mommy! Daddy! Mommy! Daddy!’ at the top of his lungs. At the end of his act he vomits. Plastic bags are passed out, and the audience is requested to follow suit.”

It doesn’t end there, though. Dr. Janov said that his patient was quite fascinated with that story, and that alone moved him to suggest something even he believed to be a little elementary.

“I asked him to call out, ‘Mommy! Daddy!’ Danny refused, saying that he couldn’t see the sense in such a childish act, and frankly, neither could I. But I persisted, and finally, he gave in. As he began, he became noticeably upset. Suddenly he was writhing on the floor in agony. His breathing was rapid, spasmodic. ‘Mommy! Daddy!’ came out of his mouth almost involuntarily in loud screeches. He appeared to be in a coma or hypnotic state. The writhing gave way to small convulsions, and finally, he released a piercing, deathlike scream that rattled the walls of my office. The entire episode lasted only a few minutes, and neither Danny nor I had any idea what had happened. All he could say afterward was: ‘I made it! I don’t know what, but I can feel.’”

Delving deeper

Dr. Janov says he was baffled for months, but then he decided to experiment with another patient with the same method, which lead to a similar result as before. The patient started out calling “Mommy! Daddy!” then experienced convulsions, heavy breathing, and then eventually screamed. After the session, Dr. Janov says his patient was transformed and became “virtually another human being. He became alert… he seemed to understand himself.”

Although the initial intention of this particular practice wasn’t to get the patient to scream, more than once did his Primal Therapy sessions end with the patient screaming and feeling lighter, revived, and relieved of stresses that were holding them down in life.

Some Methods To Practice Screaming

If you want to try it out for yourself, keep reading!


  • Step 1: Be Alone — Be alone. If you live in a place that you can’t be alone, it might be a good idea to talk to your family or roommates and explain to them what you’re about to do and make sure they’re okay with it. If you’re good to go, move on to step 2.
  • Step 2: Lie Down — Lie down on a yoga mat on your back and place a pillow underneath your head. If you don’t own a yoga mat, you can use a rug or even a soft blanket.
  • Step 3: Think — Think of things that have hurt you or made you angry. It can be anything from your childhood or even something that happened recently to make yourself cry, if you’re not already crying or upset. You could even scream “Mommy! Daddy!” just like Dr. Janov’s patients did to get yourself started.
  • Step 4: Scream — Don’t hold anything back; cry and scream as loud as you can. You can also pound your fists on the ground, or just lie there and scream at the top of your lungs.

After this, you should return your breathing to a normal and steady pace. You should feel lighter, like a weight has been lifted off of you. If not, you can also try these other methods.

Scream Sing

Scream singing” is referring to what a lot of lead singers in metal or screamo bands will do. I’ve tried it and although I wasn’t very good at it, it was fun and definitely relieved me of any stress I was feeling from before. It usually ends up sounding like a really loud grunt, but nonetheless, it’s considered screaming.


  • Step 1 — Bear down and make a grunting sound.
  • Step 2 — Hiss like a snake and make sure to do this from your diaphragm (your stomach) for as long as you can.
  • Step 3 — Breathe and push your stomach out for more air when you are belting notes, kind of like you would if you were singing.
  • Step 4 — Try different ways to let out air to control how long the note will last, just make sure not to let out too much air.
  • Step 5 — Distort your voice by pushing air out from your throat, just be careful not to strain yourself.
  • Step 6 — Play around with the pitch of your screams and how wide your mouth is open – the wider your mouth is open, the higher the screams will sound. The narrower or rounder your mouth is (and most likely shaped like an “o”), the lower the screams will sound.
  • Step 7 — Start screaming to metal music. If you’re not a huge metal fan, it’s okay. You don’t have to use this method if you don’t want to.

If you want a more thorough walkthrough of how to scream sing, here’s a good video tutorial. If this method is too strenuous on your vocal chords, stop. Also, make sure to stay hydrated when scream singing and drink lots of water.

Scream into a pillow

Grab a pillow and scream into it. This method is probably the fastest and easiest way to practice screaming. Just make sure to come up for air.


Always remember to make sure that you’re not going to disturb anyone while practicing any of these methods of screaming. And with that, happy screaming!

Featured photo credit: Sharon Mollerus via

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